The Real Face of Santa Claus

This Christmas Eve, stay woke

By Robin Happel

Copy editor

It’s that time of year again – chestnuts are roasting on an open fire, Megyn Kelly is being roasted on Twitter, and Black Santa ornaments are once again gracing store shelves in our corner of the South Bronx.

What’s so magical about Black Santa? Believe it or not, he’s actually more historically accurate than most of our modern Christmas celebrations. Although Saint Nick the fire code-ignoring reindeer wrangler is largely a figment of popular imagination (and the Coca Cola company) his namesake, the 4th-century Middle Eastern Saint Nicholas, was very real. And, if you hadn’t already inferred based on the words “4th-century Middle Eastern,” the real Saint Nicholas was not lily white.

Living in what is now the southern coast of Turkey and what was then the Roman Empire, historically accurate Santa endured decades of persecution under the Emperor Diocletian, and later the Fox News team. Orphaned at a young age, he used his inheritance to help impoverished children and travelers. Although he was imprisoned for his faith, he survived to see Christianity become accepted throughout the Roman Empire, and attended the Council of Nicaea (where, allegedly, he was thrown out for slapping someone). After he died, manna formed in his tomb, which maybe is why we leave out cookies? I used up my very limited theology knowledge trying to remember when the Council of Nicaea was, so you’ll have to ask a priest or something, sorry. Today, Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of children, ships, repentant thieves, breweries, and students, if you want someone else to pray to during finals week.

HistoryofBlackSantaTwo depictions of Santa Claus over five hundred years apart.

How did a saint become Santa? How did Saint Nicholas go from decking another priest to decking the halls? According to star charts, Jesus was likely actually born in the spring, but the Church moved the celebration of his birth to December since it was easier to pretend that pagans were cutting down trees and bringing them inside to celebrate Christ than it was to convince the pagans to stop doing this. And, since the feast day of St. Nicholas was already in December, combining it with Christmas felt like a natural fit. (Also, all of Santa’s reindeer are girls. We learn something new every day.) Much later, Dutch settlers in America called him ‘Sinterklaas,’ which over time morphed into Santa Claus. In parts of Europe, the feast day of St. Nicholas and Christmas are still separate holidays, but in America Christmas is mostly an amorphous glob of actual Christianity, paganism, random 19th-century poetry and, of course, unrestrained capitalism.

Like historical Santa, Black Santa in America has a rich history of supporting those on society’s margins. Long before political correctness and Starbucks cups became buzzwords, the whitewashing of Santa Claus was a flashpoint during the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. In the words of one Southern Christian Leadership Conference minister, “if a department store cannot conceive of a black man as Santa Claus for 30 days, it most assuredly cannot conceive of his being president or vice president for 365 days.” For decades, Jet magazine ran covers with various black celebrities dressed as Santa, and the not-Cosby covers are charming time capsules to a world where black mall Santas were employed in Macy’s flagship store and elsewhere across the country. (Today, Macy’s still has a hidden black Santa with an elf bouncer, in the strangest possible interpretation of “secret Santa.”) Black Santa has always existed for those who know where to look, in short, but it’s also possible to go your whole life hardly ever seeing him.

When I was younger, almost every portrait I saw of Santa Claus was white. (Granted, I’ve lived a large portion of my life in the rural South.) Santa being black was at most a joke, like when Kenan Thompson dressed up as Santa on Saturday Night Live, and the idea of Santa as a man from the Middle East was almost unimaginable. (Insert your own joke about TSA strip searching Santa Claus here.) As Aisha Harris wrote in Slate a couple years back, there’s a tendency in America sometimes to see white as the default. Santa is one of our few cultural symbols that just radiates innocence and gentleness – what does it say about us that it seems so impossible to see a Black or Middle Eastern man that way?

In a country that’s currently using tear gas on refugee children, maybe we need a bit more of the Santa who spent his fortune helping travelers than we do of the Santa who’s hauled out once a year to sell used cars. Someday, maybe we’ll celebrate the Santa who welcomes the stranger instead of turning them away – a community organizer, not just another Christmas ornament. And I can only hope that, someday, Netflix will make the Christmas movie starring Idris Elba we all deserve.

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