For the next month, white Victorian images of Santa Claus will permeate streets and airwaves around much of the globe. Although the Santa Claus costume for people of color comes complete with a mask in some countries, in other places, non-white images of Santa are alive and well – as in Atlanta, Georgia, for instance, the home of Santa Dee, the Real Black Santa (facebook).
While business is flourishing for Santa Dee, who holds an advanced master certification from the International School of Santa Claus, he has also been inspired by the iconic tradition that has often represented the historic St Nicholas, a Turkish native, as a dark-skinned person (below).
St Nicholas is not the only Christian saint with multiple shades of color. The third-century St Maurice (also Moritz, Morris, Maurizio or Mauritius) of the famed Theban Legion (Egypt), whom tradition claims was martyred in present-day Switzerland and who, as one of the most popular medieval saints, served as the patron saint of the Holy Roman Emperors, has been depicted in religious art both as a black Moor and as a white European.
Of particular note is a thirteenth-century statue of St Maurice as a black African that can still be seen in the Magdeburg Cathedral in Germany (left). St Maurice was also the patron saint of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads, a military organization founded in fourteenth-century lily-white Livonia (present-day Estonia and Latvia). A black image of the saint is depicted on the order’s coat of arms (photo below: detail of the House of the Blackheads, Riga, Latvia).
Given the precedent, therefore, of white knights, medieval merchants and holy emperors venerating a black patron saint, the image of children of any color sharing their Christmas wishes on the lap of a black Santa should hardly seem like a novelty. However, for families of color, encountering the dominant image of the white Victorian Santa can be a challenge if not a crisis.
In 2008, Desiree Cooper of public radio’s Weekend America addressed the complicated relationship some black American families have with the traditional Santa Claus (listen to Inside Blackness: Black Santa). Below are a few of the testimonies that appear on the program’s website:
From Vancouver, Washington: I was the first black Santa I ever saw. I’m an ex-cop, and two of my former partners were part of the law enforcement training department at Clackamas Community College in Oregon. They decided to have a Christmas party for the children of incarcerated parents. There were more than 600 mostly underprivileged boys and girls there, and I held each and every one of them on my lap and took their requests for gifts. I was hot, drained and flat-out exhausted when I finished. But I left with a good feeling. Santa’s race doesn’t matter to me because he is a spirit. I think we should have more black Santas. It would reinforce a father-like image for young black kids. It would also enhance the multicultural experience for white youngsters.
From Elk Grove, California: I am a parent to two young boys who, at ages five and eight, have never had a sit-down with a mall Santa of any ethnicity. We are all African- American. Santa’s race doesn’t matter to me directly, but I do understand the subtle message that seeing only a white Santa can convey. My eight-year-old son observed, after I pulled out a black Santa Christmas decoration last year, ‘That’s not Santa. Santa is white’. I asked why he thought that. He shared that basically all he’s ever seen tells him that Santa is white, and no black Santa sitting on our mantle would change his mind. I explained that the mall Santas are helpers to the real Santa, and that they come in all shapes, sizes and colors, including black. Now does this mean that I need to run out and find a black mall Santa? Nope. It does mean that I need to keep doing what I’m already doing: Teaching my children that we need to know as much about who is presenting the image, information, picture, etc., as we do about the item itself to help us understand the message being sent. Folks like to depict what is familiar and comfortable to them, and a white Santa is that for many.
From San Jacinto, California: I played Santa once in Hemet, Calif. I had my Santa hat on. I walked around with a full-blown beard and mustache. Many of the parents came up to me and said, ‘Thank you’. Only one Anglo-European kid requested to sit on my lap. He sat on my lap until it was time for me to read Christmas stories. Santa’s race doesn’t matter to me. When I grew, up all pictures of Santa were of a jolly old Anglo-European man dressed in red and white with a beard and a pair of bifocal glasses. I believe this is a social understanding issue. The US and the world can never see a black man doing anything right. Blacks are identified in the media as if they can do no good. So it is easy to say that there is no black Santa Claus. When, as a nation, we can stop looking at Santas as black or white or whatever and just view them as Santas, the world will be a better place.
Unknown location: Growing up in white suburbia, my authentic Santa was one who looked like the Santa Claus depicted on the Coca Cola ads. My homogeneous existence and worldview changed dramatically my first year of teaching, when I was a minority teacher in an all-black school district. For our Christmas concert, the decoration crew trotted out the black Santa Clauses, and I was taken aback. Needless to say, in 30 years in that district, I only saw black Santa Clauses. So I would say that it’s important for children to see Santa in their own image.
From Berkeley, California: I was Santa for my kids’ preschool about 12 years ago, in Emeryville, Calif. I’m black, but fairly light-skinned, and it wasn’t a problem at all. My own kids didn’t even recognize me, which was pretty funny. The part about which I am most proud involves my older son, who would have been about 15 at the time. When he told his friends about my experience, they told him Santa couldn’t be black. They said this not in racist anger, but as a matter of fact. My son countered, without any coaching or prompting, that Santa could be any race at all. Santa’s race does not matter. The meaning of Santa Claus is primarily for young children, who often have not even figured out what race really means.
A quick youtube.com search will reveal a number of short comedic videos on the subject of black Santa, often recycling the same jokes and comments, such as Why Santa can’t be black.
In The Netherlands, the issue is not black Santa, but rather his black servant elf known as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), first introduced in a 1850 book and now increasingly under criticism as the tradition includes dressing up in the racist caricature of a black person – black-painted faces, Afro wigs and thick red lips. A facebook page has become a major platform for debate on the subject.
GeenStijl, the county’s most widely read news blog, recently wrote: ‘Zwarte Piet is nothing more than a repulsive parody of a slave, fine-tuned to indoctrinate schoolchildren into the finer points of racism. The sooner we get rid of Zwarte Piet, the sooner we won’t look like idiots to the rest of the world’.
Or, maybe because embodying the racial stereotypes of the cultural other harms and degrades all who are involved, while widening an already formidable gap between the respective cultural groups.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from your Santa and mine!