I don’t remember exactly how old I was when my parent’s broke the news to me that Santa Claus wasn’t real. I remember it was a rainy evening in the winter, my Father and I were sitting in our car in the parking lot of a supermarket near our home (a cold drizzle is what passes for a winter storm here in Southern California). I had expressed my doubts about the reality of Santa Claus, and my Father, bless him, decided to explain to me that I didn’t need to keep struggling with this, that there was no jolly fat man in a red suit whose existence I needed to continue defending to my schoolmates. Santa Claus, my Father continued, was not a person, but a personification of the spirit of Christmas and the act of selfless giving to one’s loved ones.
I remember feeling a little devastated by that revelation, even wanting for a moment to proclaim it to my younger siblings in an act of vengeance against my parents for their willing deception. The fact that I didn’t probably says more about my fear of incurring the wrath of my parents than any altruistic desire to preserve “the wonder of the season” for my younger brother and sister, but what can I say, my sense of duty usually outweighs my moral courage.
In retrospect, I have to say I’m surprised that revelation didn’t destroy my faith altogether and leave me a confirmed atheist and cynic. But for some reason, I’ve always found the idea of a 1st century Judean Rabbi being the promised Messiah, dying and coming back to life of his own accord and dying for my sins to give my life purpose to be more plausible than an immortal employer of mythical humanoid creatures, living in the frozen arctic wastes and employing a spy system more intricate than that of the NSA to monitor the “good and bad” children of the world, who annually performs a record-breaking series of home-invasions, just to leave toys behind. Maybe the existential terror of a universe without Santa is not as great as that of one without Jesus, but that is the topic for another post altogether.
Anyway, having navel-gazed and meandered far too much here, I’ll get to the point. Santa isn’t real, kids. He’s something bigger than a mere mortal man, he’s an idea. As such, the “reality” of Santa is a reality constructed in each of our individual minds, and subject to our own perceptions, life experiences, and ideals. As a white, straight-male of WASPy background, Santa appears in my mind as the benevolent, portly old white guy with the beard in the red suit. This is not altogether surprising, were I a few years older, a few pounds heavier, and grew a beard, Santa would look a lot like me. Which is exactly the point. A young African-American boy in Detroit’s childhood looks nothing like mine. His perceptions, life experiences and ideals have been shaped by his experience of being poor and Black in a primarily Black neighborhood. Is it any wonder then that his construction of Santa Claus would be different than mine. Why would it be a problem if the Santa Claus he concieved of was African-American? How is this any more of a problem than a German child imagining Sinterklaas (with his rather unsavory traveling companion, the Demon Krampus) or Russian Children visualizing Grandfather Frost?
Now yes, dear readers, I am aware that the iconic image of the American Santa Claus was created by the political cartoonist Thomas Nast (who also created Uncle Sam, and popularized the use of the donkey and the elephant as the symbols of the Democratic and Republican parties), and that Nast’s depiction of Santa Claus was indeed white. But the problem remains, that the aforementioned Mr. Claus remains fictional, and as such Mr. Nast’s depiction of the old man, while certainly traditional, is hardly conclusive, it merely means that Nast, created his own vision of Santa based from his experiences as a White man. Why should I, or anyone else, assume Mr. Nast’s standards to be the only ones with which to judge?
Ultimately though, the real question regarding the color of Santa’s skin is, “why is this important?” Has Fox News finally run out of “War on Christmas” headlines, and been reduced to debates on the ethnic background of fictional characters? Who is hurt by the idea that Santa Claus, whose subjectively-constructed image resides in each person’s individual psyche, might be Black, or Asian, or Latino, or Gay, or a Woman for that matter? I don’t have to imagine him that way, and I don’t have to tell my children about him in any of those ways, so what do I care if others choose to imagine him in a way I disagree with?
Christmas is stressful enough without meaningless arguments over pointless issues. We as a people manage to cram three months worth of holiday activities into the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day and, if the post-holiday burnout in January is any measure, come out none the happier or better for it. Might not the futile energy that has been poured into this mindless discussion by a multitude of foolish men and women (among which I will count myself, for I’ve waded into it too), have been better spent pursuing the values which Santa Claus supposedly signifies, selfless giving and boundless generosity?