A recent L.A. Times article described a celebrated Black Santa Claus, “the main attraction…at a mall…in the heart of black Los Angeles.” People actually first call “to make sure he will be there” before they head out on what is for some an hour’s drive.
The historical St. Nicholas was actually a wealthy Greek orphan born in Asia minor during the third century who grew up to become a bishop. He was supposed to have tossed gold coins anonymously down a chimney so three poor downtrodden sisters could get married. He became known for his charity and evolved into a synthesis of the Dutch legend, the German Sinterklaas, and the British Father Christmas. So Santa as we know him is a European of multicultural blood who started out as a Christian from the Mediterranean, neither white nor black but olive.
Santa does not play a part in my family’s Christmas celebration but the questions I pose are about something more than belief in him. The International University of Santa Claus based in L.A. has had three pupils among the 2,200+ Santas it has trained nationwide. Part of the difficulty lies in finding men who make a good match in charisma and physical features. Is affirmative action called for? Keeping Santa white would translate into preserving the status quo by hiring men on the basis of their skin color. Or do we lose something of the magic of tradition to diversify this legendary model? I feel we would, depicting Santa as a Korean man. Which brings us back to the black question.
When kids first sight Santa, say at the mall or on TV, are they getting a lesson that to have mythical powers of access into minds and homes, you have to be white? Nick’s a superstar. It meant a great deal to the African-American community to visit with a black Santa at the mall. “I just don’t want him [her godson] to think that all greatness comes from a different race,” said one shopper. Greatness is a weighty word. Should an Asian child, then, be given the chance to see himself, that is, “his own people” in such an iconic role? I wonder: when I explained to my then four-year-old who the Santa Claus he’d heard about was said to be, did he imagine a Korean grandfather figure with superpowers? If my boy did, it would imply an emotional need on his part to keep heroes close to home, to extend them naturally to the prototype of the person in the mirror and the people he lived with. Until every book, poster, movie replaced that picture with a white man who wields godlike faculties of omniscience and a modified form of omnipresence. Interestingly, my husband remembers from South Korea in the 70s that Santa was American. Today, kids in Korea know Santa is “in actuality” white and understand that the Korean Santas they see are imitation. The children don’t hold to as strong a belief in him as many do in America. Rather than help kids feel closer to the myth for seeing themselves, the Korean Santa models may be strengthening the sense of artificiality behind the famed figure. I’m not sure an Asian Santa would have the same effect on my son growing up where his ethnicity does not comprise the majority.
Now, I wonder what it does for kids who are not black, white children especially, to see a dark Santa. Will it confuse? After all, Santa is…well, the Santa. It is no fault of any people group that he gained worldwide popularity as a European. What if we want to – and ought we not – preserve the heritage that produced this celebrated figure from a certain geography and culture in time? Are we forcing cosmetic skin surgery on those who have achieved fame on their racial terms? It’s one thing to draw out Pocahontas and Mulan from the shadows into the global limelight. But insisting that Snow White be Snow Black is another. If we were to protest a monochrome representation of St. Nick, we should also be doing so on book and movie platforms. And how about Superman?
Should we leave Santa alone?
I am not arguing against Black Santas. I’m not speaking out of conviction but thinking aloud. Your thoughts, please. Floor’s all yours.