Earlier this month a controversy arose after a tongue-in-cheek column written by Aisha Harris, a woman of color, was published online at Slate.com, suggesting maybe it’s time that Santa Claus is no longer depicted as a white man.
A Fox news host, Megyn Kelly, commenting on air about the Harris column, caused a firestorm by saying Santa is most certainly white and that Jesus is too. After many expressed outrage at Kelly’s comments, she later said that she, like Harris, had simply been making tongue-in-cheek observations and that her critics just don’t have a sense of humor.
Saint Nicholas was a Greek man who was also known as Nikolaos of Myra. He was a historic 4th-century Christian saint and bishop. “Santa Claus” comes from Dutch versions of his name and title. Regional and cultural traditions about his activity since then have widely varied. I believe the way Americans commonly picture him, race, clothing and all, is derived from vintage Coca-Cola advertising. So there’s the historic man and there’s the ongoing tradition of Santa.
We can’t change history, but we can alter tradition. If Santa’s skin darkens over the years or changes with each household, that’s fine. We didn’t do Santa with our kids. We always had a tongue-in-cheek “Barta Claus” who was a Czech and came from Iowa. Our kids have done just fine.
It absolutely matters what race Jesus Christ is. Jesus’ father was God himself and his mother was a Jewish virgin named Mary. God promised Abraham, a Semitic man, that through his physical descendants “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). Jesus’ earthly Semitic heritage is the story of God’s grace in choosing a particular people to be his, and through them drawing all others to Him as well. I completely understand the desire to depict Jesus as a member of our particular ethnicity, but we can all identify with him on an even deeper level. He took humanity upon himself and bore the sins of all humanity on the cross. “There is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).
Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church
Christians often answer with, “Jesus could be purple, who cares?” I Googled “purple jesus.” Turns out there’s a frat-drink comprised of equal parts moonshine and grape soda called “Purple Jesus.” Maybe color does matter.
I reject the current bigotry that my race is bad, colonial, oppressive, whatever, and that traditionally Caucasian figures should be recast into current whim. When talking about historic people, shouldn’t facts supersede fancy? Imagine saying Thomas Jefferson was black. Would that be true? How could we know, since there were no photos? In D.C. the racial demographic favors African Americans, so should politically correct assumptions declare Jefferson “black”? Fact is, his day saw whites as three-quarters of the population surrounding the White House. Times change, but every artistic rendering confirms his race.
Jesus’ visage is about facts, not assumptions. They’re still vague, but better than mere opinions. Scripture affirms his beard, as Jews were forbidden to shave (Lev 9:27) and Jesus’ human genetics began with Jacob (renamed “Israel”) whose twin was completely ginger (Gen 25:24-26). My brother has red hair, and I have some. Who’s usually associated with crimson locks, Palestinians?
Generations later, King David was born “ruddy” (1Sa 16:12) meaning “reddish,” not swarthy, as racists presume. Jesus was consequently dubbed “son of David” (Mat 1). What to think? Perhaps we should add two millennia of iconography and tradition with better attestation than modern upstarts who wish to “dash away, dash away, dash away all!”
Allow my segue: St. Nicholas’ remains we have. He’s a 5-foot-6 Greek from Patara (AD 270) which is now in Turkey. Turks weren’t present then. With added legend, our beloved Kris Kringle ushers Christmas. Maybe Santa wasn’t observably Norwegian, but more so than Mesoamerican, so leave him alone.
The truth? “From one man [God] made all the nations” (Acts 17:26). God does not favor race but is its creator, and Jesus is God. With that, and mild reserve, I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…
The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church
How sad — it seems that even Santa and Jesus are not immune to racial profiling today. Santa was portrayed by the American author of “The Night Before Christmas” as a jolly, old, fat white man. But he was a fictional character, not a racial stereotype. And Jesus was clearly Middle Eastern, however he may have been pictured in storybooks and Sunday school posters. The fact that both of these men have been narrowly defined as white says more about us than reality. The majority culture in the United States has once again tried to co-opt the identities of these two icons.
But I would like to concentrate on Santa in this article since the cultural identity of Jesus is not really in question. And the idea of Saint Claus, a character with many other names, is extant in many countries and continents, not just our story of him. He is a personification of love and giving that we so much need today throughout the world.
The power of Santa to me is that he has defied race and culture and has had a positive influence on children throughout the world. Those who would try to limit him to a single race or culture are doing a disservice to the ideas of wonder and compassion that he represents. The little boy who saw Santa as black was able to translate the joy of Christmas into someone with whom he could identify.
My hope is that at this time of the year we can each find the spirit of Santa, by whatever name, in our hearts — not in our petty divisiveness. And so I wish holiday blessings to all those who will open their hearts to the love that can bring hope and joy to all. “Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night!”
Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
It doesn't matter to me, but then I'm not the one who brought it up.
Clearly it seemed to matter very much to Fox News personality Megyn Kelly, and her attempt at back-pedaling to say that she was just joking didn't ring true. Her alleged job is to observe and accurately report reality, so she should be aware that all people need to see themselves reflected in the culture.
The day this question appeared in our inboxes, the Times reported on a wildly popular black Santa at a Crenshaw mall, with people calling from Palmdale to make sure he was going to be there before they made the trip.
What did seem genuine was Kelly’s admission that the idea of Jesus not being “white” was news to her. Let's really blow her mind then: Not only is there no white race, there aren't any races at all, which a quick search of scholarly Internet documents. Rather, there is one human race, homo sapiens sapiens.
Beyond that, race is a social and historical construct with no biological basis. People have been born in one race per their birth certificate and appeared as another on a death document.
More variations occur within a so-called race than between them. Two very white Swedes can be more different than a Swede and a black African in their genes. Race is literally no more than skin deep, lighter near the poles and darker near the equator. Even inherited disease doesn't prove to be “racial” — sickle cell follows malaria, with some African areas being totally free of it, while it is present in regions outside Africa.
So Megyn, use “race” as a shorthand for color, ethnicity, national heritage, or liking Fox News, but not because it is real.
Personally, being Korean I don’t expect Jesus Christ to look like me, but that has never interfered with my relationship with him or alienated me. If we simply go on what's contained in Scripture, it's obvious that Jesus’ appearance was not considered important since so little mention is given to it.
Luke 2:52 relates that Jesus grew in stature and wisdom and in favor with God and man, hardly a detailed description. Isaiah 53:2b provides a little more information. “He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon him. Nor appearance that we should be attracted to him.” Apparently Jesus was quite ordinary looking, not someone who would stand out in a crowd. From this I conclude that Jesus looked like a typical Israeli 2,000 years ago.
Jesus was a Jew living in a part of the world that touched three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. Although typically depicted as a white man with European features, he most certainly had darker skin and features more like an Egyptian.
As I travel internationally, I see Christ depicted in a wide range of cultural and ethnic diversity, and I don't find this disturbing. Jesus Christ comes in a way that is meaningful to each person. Who is to say that he cannot look like many different nationalities or ethnicities?
As a Christian, I am much more concerned with Jesus’ purpose and destiny here on Earth than with his appearance. He came to reveal the nature and character of Father God and his love for us. We are called to be conformed to his image, that is to grow in Christ-like character. His physical appearance is really a nonissue.
Pastor Ché Ahn
Santa Claus, as we Westerners understand him, springs from several traditions including Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Yuletide, and maybe even good King Wenceslaus, who was a real person. Santa has become one of the symbols of Christmas; parents and children have endured pictures on the jolly man’s lap, helped their children write long letters to him detailing what they would like, and spent hours every Christmas Eve trying to stay awake to see if, indeed, he will come down the chimney.
Part of the process of growing up to have a good self-image of yourself is to see yourself reflected positively in the world around you. It is part of most baby boomers’ memory banks to picture a rosy-cheeked plump white Santa with lots of toys. Whether or not young children believe in Santa Claus, it is important at some point to help them understand that Santa Claus is a concept, a mythical creature, a traditional moral construct who rises above race, and perhaps even above sex.
The Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition teaches that actually Jesus existed in history. However there is nothing in the New Testament that describes his physical appearance. Artists have portrayed him from being extremely fair with long blond hair, to extremely dark with short tightly curled locks. Just as media and department stores have taught us to understand that Mr. Claus is a perception and impression — an impression that ultimately knows no one race — so mercy, compassion and Spirit teach us that Jesus, the Christ who is God’s love revealed, rises above any human classification.
The Rev. Dr. William Thomas Jr.
Little White Chapel
Of course not, although I must confess that I was startled the first time I saw a black Santa. Some people may be startled the first time they see a painting called the Black Madonna.
What I think different representations of Jesus or Santa Claus indicate is that Christmas, religiously speaking, is for everybody. The writer(s) of the gospel of Matthew had that inclusive idea when they included the story of Wise Men from the East seeking out the Christ child. Jesus was Jewish and of the house and lineage of David, but those Wise Men are clearly from someplace else, and the implication is that “someplace else” means another culture and another religion, probably. You can read the account in Matthew 2: 1-12.
So what I think Matthew and the other gospel writers are saying is that Jesus is for everybody, regardless of race, color, culture or religion. So, if in fact Jesus is for everybody, it is only natural for different races to depict Jesus as one of their own, and that goes for Santa Claus, too.
But I'd like to caution all the white folks who like to picture Jesus as some sort of Anglo-Saxon, blue-eyed baby boy, don’t! Jesus was a Middle-Easterner, and I'm guessing that he looked like all the other Middle-Easterners of his day. Remember that when he was arrested and later crucified, he had to be pointed out to the authorities, and that tells me that he must have looked just like everybody else.
A few years ago a magazine projected what Jesus might have looked like, and the magazine made its projection by looking at first-century skulls that were dug up around Jerusalem. I must confess that I was startled by the magazine's projection; the face I was looking at was no Sallman's Head of Christ, and it was certainly not a European face, either. The face I beheld was a swarthy, Middle-Eastern face with a beard.
Now all of this doesn't matter, of course; no gospel writer gives a description of what Jesus looked like. The point is who he was and is. But we have tended to make him in our own image.
Merry Christmas to you and yours, regardless of what you think the Child of Bethlehem looked like!
The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge