By Ted Braun
When Cleveland High School in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, had a holiday dress-up day two weeks ago, an African-American freshman at the school, Christopher Rougier, came dressed in a Santa Claus suit. He was then told by his teacher that he couldn’t be Santa because Santa is white. This raises an important question for us especially at this time of year: why has Santa usually been depicted as a white man?
The story of Santa actually begins with a Christian bishop, St. Nicholas, who lived in the third century in what is now Turkey. After receiving an inheritance of money, he began using it to help the poor and sick. One story tells how he secretly gave a bag of money to a father who had three daughters, but was unable to provide a dowry for them and had thought of selling them into servitude. After saving them from that fate Nicholas came to be known as a protector of children and for gift-giving, especially on the date of his death, Dec. 6. Nicholas, however, probably had olive-toned or tan skin.
In the U.S. during the 1800s a more secular image of this gift-giver began developing. In 1809 Washington Irving in his book Knickerbocker’s History of New York portrayed a pipe-smoking Nicholas flying over the rooftops in a wagon pulled by a single reindeer. In 1821 an anonymous illustrated poem entitled “The Children’s Friend” showed Santa dressed in furs. Then in 1822 Clement Clarke Moore wrote “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (also known as “The Night Before Christmas”) that featured a plump, jolly Santa riding a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer.
Finally in the late 1800s, helped along by political cartoonist Thomas Nast, the North American image of a jolly Santa dressed in a red suit with white fur trim, starting out from the North Pole with a fully-loaded sleigh and pulled by eight reindeer, became the standard rendition. Often this Santa was not only busy on Christmas Eve rooftop stopovers but also sponsored by department stores. For instance, he could be seen arriving at the end of a Thanksgiving Day parade or sitting with children on his lap, asking them what they wanted for Christmas and giving his blessing to the commercialization of this holiday.
This is probably the point where the image and icon of the white Santa relates most directly to the system of wealth distributions we have in our nation. Our corporate billionaires are all white, and there’s a certain logic to the belief in a patron saint who is white, as well.
Rhonda Ahrens, in an article in the December 22 Tennessean, raises an interesting question: “What if instead of making children a market, we made them a cause? We could call it ‘Santa Cause,’ dedicating ourselves to helping children worldwide get out of poverty, and gain access to education and health care.”
Would a Santa of color be more open to this idea? At least it would be getting us back to the dream of the original St. Nicholas.
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This column by local writers is dedicated to the theme that the lion and the lamb can and must learn to live together and grow in their relationship toward one another to ensure a better world of peace and justice. Opinions expressed in “Lion and Lamb” columns are not necessarily those of the Crossville Chronicle publisher, editor or staff. For more information, contact Ted Braun, editor, at 277-5135.