Just about 50 years ago, a civil rights leader reportedly described the tradition and image of Santa Claus as “one of the established symbols of racism”.
For people back then and even now, this accusation seems far-fetched. Father Christmas was supposed to transcend the racial animus of the civil rights struggle and identity politics.
Some may even cite the “spirit of Christmas” as a reason to give up or suspend any disenchantment with the politics of the day. Or a reason to forget about your skin color.
Fast forward to 2013 when then-Fox News anchor, Megyn Kelly, made it emphatically clear on-air what she thought Jesus Christ and Santa Claus: “Jesus was a white man, too. It’s like we have, he’s a historical figure that’s a verifiable fact, as is Santa, I just want kids to know that. How do you revise it in the middle of the legacy in the story and change Santa from white to black?.”
Kelly was responding to a Slate article about the sort of identitarian hangover a white Santa Claus has left in American culture. Quite predictably, in the aftermath of Kelly’s statement, people from all corners of American life began chipping in with their opinion.
The fact of Jesus’ race is uncontested – he was Jewish. His appearance and skin color, however, matter to so many other peoples, opening the door to different visual interpretation in Christian iconography.
But the matter of Santa Claus is different and probably more dense.
Santa Claus is caricatured after the kind-hearted 4th-century Greek preacher Nicholas, bishop of Myra. He was a generous gift-giver, especially to the poor.
As happens to individuals like him, Nicholas’ story was mythologized. This was brought about by his canonization and the European Christian adaptations from the feast of Saint Nicholas to the flying reindeer as part of his ensemble.
The visual image of Santa Claus as we know today by American Thomas Nast in the late 1800s. That Santa was as white as white could be, and it is fair to say Euro-Americans created a legend in their own image.
When in 2016, the Mall of America, the biggest in the US, decided to hire an African-American to be Santa Claus, some in white America did not take it so well.
Political correctness had gone too far, they claimed. Identity politics was whitewashing or blackwashing, a historic white figure.
Threats were even issued against the man in question. The whole episode, for white conservatives, played into what they believed had been going on starting with the presidency of Barack Obama – a so-called “war on Christmas”.
Prof Victoria Wolcott, a history professor at the University of Buffalo, who spoke to the BBC at the time, tried to theorize the sociological basis of the massive outcry.
“Going to a department store, sitting on Santa’s lap, all of that, is very central to a certain kind of post-war, white middle-class identity. To challenge that, by having a Santa Claus of colour, disturbs people,” said Prof Wolcott.
In this argument, Santa Claus was, after all, a vestige of white identity. In a fast-changing world where white privilege and the history of European civilization was being challenged, something had to remain as it was made.
But African-American portrayal of Santa had not always carried a civil rights flavor. In the early times, black people in the US were only glad to be part of the Christmas season.
But even that was treated in a peculiar manner by white society in the 1900s.
“A negro Santa Claus went down a chimney head first and landed on the fire. The surprised occupants of the room flogged him,” a 1901 news report, from New Jersey, reportedly read.
The sight of a “negro Santa Claus” was in jest, and this allowed Caucasians to makeup in black-face and done Santa’s fatsuit to instigate laughter. When black people got serious about playing Santa, they were sometimes accused of racism.
The first black Santa who may have been taken seriously was Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the tap-dancing legend in 1936. He was hired to be Santa for underprivileged black children.
After the 1940s, the modern look of the debate on whether there should be a black Santa kicked in. Questions began to surface on what it means to black people to have a white figure embodying generosity and joyfulness.
Today, it is still not common to see black Santas at big shopping malls in the United States. And we do not know what the immediate reasons are.
But that accusation of white Santa Claus as a symbol of racism is not far from the point if we pay attention to the history.