This Christmas season likely won’t be remembered as much for how Lodi residents helped replace the gifts stolen from the family of a soldier returning from Afghanistan as it will for the debate over the race of the fictional bearer of gifts.
It started with culture blogger Aisha Harris’ Dec. 10 op-ed for Slate in which she suggests replacing “a melanin-deficient Santa” with a multicultural representational penguin. Then it escalated when Fox’s Megyn Kelly empaneled three guests on her primetime show to discuss the piece and declared “for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white.” Both women later said their comments were tongue-in-cheek.
Last week, I was pulled onto NPR, where I’m a regular contributor, to discuss the fracas with Harris and others — the fracas being an argument about the race of a fictional character who lives at the North Pole with elves and pilots a flying-reindeer sleigh to slide down a chimney with presents. Reactions there were varied.
My first thought was that, over the centuries, portrayals of Jesus and the saints have tended to reflect the culture of that region. The Netherlands’ Sinterklass looks wholly Northern European without much hint of the real St. Nicholas’ heritage in Asia Minor. Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew, yet cultural representations around the world range from a Jesus with Asian features in the Far East to a black Jesus in Africa and a white, flowing haired representation in Europe. However the cultural interpretation, the legacy of the individual or meaning of their symbolism is not diminished. I doubt either Jesus or St. Nick care about the color of their skin as they do people emulating their works and listening to their words. Unfortunately, the black Santa debate has brought out a lot of ugly in what’s supposed to be a more inspired time of year, with comments left behind the cloak of anonymity on other sites’ stories including racist cracks about black Santa being on welfare or stealing toys instead of leaving them. That is definitely something neither Jesus nor St. Nicholas would utter.
Which leads to my ultimate conclusion about the great Santa debate, which I’ll explain on the next page.
When I was 11 years old and in need of a warm coat and a box of food, my “Santa” was a Scottish-American woman: my sixth-grade teacher. Shouldn’t we focus instead on people who have no prayer of a visit from any sort of Santa than the race of a guy dressed up in a red suit to hear kids’ Christmas wishes?
Isn’t Santa the people who have been quietly stuffing Salvation Army kettles to help them make up for a donation shortfall this year while insisting on remaining anonymous? Isn’t Santa how the town of Havelock, N.C., fed and clothed a 72-year-old Navy veteran who was turned out on the street by his family and helped him get back on his feet? Isn’t Santa the person who quietly buys a cup of coffee for the homeless man on the curb, not because it’s Christmas but because it’s cold?
The outrage in this debate isn’t whether Santa should be portrayed as black, white or Asian, but about how high that debate has climbed on the totem pole of priorities.