Fear of a Black Santa: Kris Kringle and the Historical Color of American Identity

The gloriously 1970s-ish album cover for Akim's 19773 Christmas novelty tune, "Santa Claus is a Black Man."

The gloriously 1970s-ish album cover for Akim’s 1973 Christmas novelty tune, “Santa Claus is a Black Man.”

Everybody knows what Santa Claus looks like, right? Sure we do: he’s an obese, hirsute, exceptionally jolly home invader who shows up in malls, Christmas parades, and your living room every December armed with a sack full of goodies with the intention of teaching well-behaving youngsters the value of rampant materialism. Oh, and Santa is a white guy. We know all of these facts despite the overwhelming fact that Santa isn’t even real. Yes, I’m sorry Virginia, but Santa Claus is indeed a mythical figure. Yet, as anyone whose studied comparative religions knows, humans often imbue mythical figures with the very real powers to shape social discourse. How humans perceive mythical figures speaks volumes about the way they perceive important issues in their society.

Case in point: writer Aisha Harris, in a a column for Slate, recounts how, during her youth, the overwhelming cultural image of a white Santa Claus contrasted with the depictions of a black Santa in her own home. “I remember feeling slightly ashamed that our black Santa wasn’t the ‘real thing,’ Harris writes, “[b]ecause when you’re a kid and you’re inundated with the imagery of a pale seasonal visitor…you’re likely to accept the consensus view, despite your parents’ noble intentions.” Harris goes on to suggest, only semi-jokingly, that Santa should be changed into a penguin, because having such an omnipresent cultural figure depicted as a white guy “helps perpetuate the whole ‘white-as-default‘ notion endemic to American culture.”

Following the publication of Harris’ article, Fox News host Megyn Kelly decided to squelch any attempts to colorize St. Nick by defiantly reasserting that “Santa just is white.” Leaving aside the obvious weirdness of arguing over the racial background of a figure that doesn’t actually exist, Kelly’s comments stirred plenty of internet outrage. Liberal media outlets like Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show mocked Kelly relentlessly (she also claimed, in the same segment, that Jesus was a white guy), while the Los Angeles Times insisted, per input from its readership, that there’s nothing wrong with a black Santa.

Of course, Fox News, being the undisputed media Delphi of white, reactionary outrage that it is, came to Kelly’s defence. Bill O’Reilly, self-proclaimed “Culture Warrior,” and noted General on the front lines of the non-existent “War on Christmasreasserted that “Megyn Kelly is correct. Santa was a white person.” Following this unequivocal statement about Santa’s honky heritage, O’Reilly then claimed that “the spirit of Santa transcends all racial boundaries,” as long as those boundaries don’t move beyond that of a white guy.

So what’s the big deal here? On the one hand, the whole “Black Santa” controversy can be attributed to the needs of the now standard 24-hour news cycle to fill airspace with vacuous, manufactured tripe. Fox News itself excels at turning absolutely any story into an excuse for its white, geriatric viewership to snatch persecution from the jaws of privilege. But there is an important theme underlying this whole story. As I noted above, and in case you weren’t aware, Santa Claus isn’t real. In that respect, he has no race or ethnicity. So why do so many Americans care about the race of a mythical, jolly, bearded fat guy who gives kids toys every December 24th? Americans care because what constitutes a default “American” racial identity has always been a contested concept.

Much of the trajectory of American history can be defined by a dichotomy of black and white and the struggles that dichotomy unleashed over time. In the 18th and 19th centuries, notions of “blackness” and “whiteness” weren’t just markers of outward appearances; rather, these notions also symbolized broader concepts like “slavery” and “freedom.” In his classic book Liberty and Slavery: Southern Politics to 1860, Historian William J. Cooper identifies the symbiotic existence of slavery and freedom in early American history by observing that for white Americans, especially southerners in a slave society, slavery was the real, manifested opponent of freedom. Seeing black slaves in their midst constantly reaffirmed white Americans’ own identities as free citizens of the United States.*

Indeed, from the constitutional period up to the Civil War, white Americans equated blackness not only with slavery but also with the idea of “otherness;” that blacks did not share a truly American identity with whites. The early juxtaposition of black slavery with white freedom helped forge the still existent notion that equates whiteness with American identity and blackness as somehow an aberration from the cultural default that is an American white face.

Fox News' host Bill O'Reilly: defender of Christmas and a honky Santa Claus.

Fox News host Bill O’Reilly: defender of Christmas and a honky Santa Claus.

Even after the Civil War, when slavery ceased to exist as a legal institution, the idea that blackness somehow constituted a “lesser-than” form of otherness in an American sea of “normal” whiteness survived and thrived. As historian Grace Elizabeth Hale notes, white northerners and white southerners sought to reconcile after the Civil War, and it was a reconciliation grounded in “modern whiteness” that contrasted with the “culture of segregation” that marked African-Americans as legally and culturally inferior to whites by the turn-of-the-century.* Although they were no longer slaves, blacks were still a cultural and racial minority who were denied equal rights because of their blackness well into the 20th century.

The idea that blackness has historically be seen as an aberration from the “normalcy” of (white) American identity is hard for actual white people like Megyn Kelly to comprehend. For them, whiteness “just is,” just as Santa Claus is white because he “just is.” Kelly and other white Americans can’t understand why anyone would care if a beloved mythical character is claimed by white people because they don’t take the time to try to view American society from the perspective of someone not blessed by white privilege. Whiteness, according to sociologist George Lipsitz, is “the unmarked category against which difference is constructed.” This means that “whiteness never has to speak its name, never has to acknowledge its role as an organizing principle in social and cultural relations.”* This is the fog of white privilege: it allows those who benefit from it to claim ignorance of its very existence and criticize those who see white privilege from an outsider’s perspective as misguided or “politically correct.”

Hence, Bill O’Reilly can simultaneously assert that “Santa was a white person. Does that matter? No. It doesn’t matter.” But of course it matters: it matters to O’Reilly, hence his devoting airtime to firmly establishing the racial provenance of a mythical figure. In one sense, however, O’Reilly is right; Santa Claus is a white man because the dominant (white) American culture created him in its own image.

In America, Santa Claus is what scholars call an “invented tradition,” defined by the late scholar Eric Hobsbawm as “a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past.” Invented traditions claim to have a rich history, even though they’re usually rather new, and they tend to reflect the values of those who create them. It’s no surprise, then, that Santa Claus, who was popularized in the early 19th century by the dominating white members of an American white supremacist society, emerged as white. After all, by that point in U.S. history, whiteness had itself become a tradition invented by those who gained the most from it.

In his great book The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of America’ Most Cherished Holiday, historian Stephen Nissenbaum explains how Santa Claus falls squarely into the realm of invented tradition. The American Santa Claus as we know him: white, fat, jolly, bearded, and prone to squeezing down chimneys to give toys to deserving rug-rats, emerged in the 1820s from the writings of Clement Clark Moore, the patrician New Yorker who wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known as “The Night Before Christmas” (1823). Moore’s depiction of Santa Claus inspired the cartoonist Thomas Nast to create later iconic images of Santa that fixed the jolly holiday icon into the American popular imagination as a character who had always been there, even though he had only been invented, in an American context, in the 1820s.*

An iconic image of a (white) Santa Claus by Thomas Nast. From Harper's Weekly, 1881.

An iconic image of a (white) Santa Claus by Thomas Nast. From Harper’s Weekly, 1881.

The fact that Santa Claus emerged as a white guy was a given, considering the historical time period during which he became a fixture in American culture. But American culture was, and in many respects remains, a culture projected through the default prism of whiteness. Thus, conservatives who become apoplectic over attempts to topple the pasty-white image of Santa Claus are really fearing the loss of white privilege that such attempts symbolize.

If the whiteness of such an iconic character as Santa Claus can be challenged, then whiteness itself, or at least the inherent privilege that comes with whiteness, can also be challenged. Those who benefit the most from the projection and consumption of white privilege via mass media, such as highly paid Fox News anchors, have much to lose from the gradual erosion of whiteness as the default characteristic of American identity. Of course, if you’re one of those people who understand that traditions can and should be changed, then the idea of a black Santa should be no more threatening than the idea of a black president. Both images reflect long overdue changes to an America in which one cultural perspective wielded far too much influence. A “White Christmas” indeed.

* See William J. Cooper, Jr., Liberty and Slavery: Southern Politics to 1860 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983, 2000), 30-31.

* See Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940 (New York: Vintage, 1998), 9.

* See  George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006), 1.

* See Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of America’s Most Cherished Holiday (New York: Vintage, 1996), 65-89.

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7 Comments

  1. This was a great post. I only have one correction. Clement Moore DID NOT write “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Major Henry Livingston did, according to Don Foster in “Author Unknown.” Thanks. Bruce

    • Thanks for the compliment! There has been a fair amount of controversy over the authorship of “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Generally, historians, including Nissenbaum, still give credit to Moore. Since the poem was first published anonymously, its been a hotly debated issue. What likely happened is that Livingston wrote something similar, and Moore possibly ripped parts of it off, as was a common custom in the 19th century. I stuck with Moore as the author since that’s where most scholarship still credits the poem given that no manuscript has been located, as far as I know, with Livingston’s signature on it. But admittedly, he’s a likely candidate.

      • Historian that you are, I am not surprised at your well researched response. However, if you only read the section in Don Foster’s book about how he determined the Moore was a fake and Livingston was the author, I think you will come to the same conclusion. Foster is an expert at decoding people’s style of writing. The poem fits Livingston’s, and wasn’t even close to Moore’s or his harsh personality. This endearing poem wasn’t written by Scrooge. I hope you get a chance to check it out. All the best, and Merry Christmas. Bruce

  2. Thanks for the tips, Bruce. I admittedly haven’t read Foster’s book yet, and he may very well be right. Have yourself a great holiday as well down there in Amish Country!

  3. There was a war on Christmas – Santa Claus and commercialization won. (And teach children that adults don’t believe no matter how hard we tell kids belief is the only thing that matters). Don’t blame the liberals.

  4. You know you people be Trippin there was a black man who was a pastor, pope whatever who was passing out presents to sick children and poor children an that tradition was stolen by the indentured servants immigrated from Europe went to Court and got a legal term to call themselves White and they start calling his gesture of love Christmas. Give credit where credit is due do more research until you find it and stop taking credit away from other people.

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