Personal Liberty Poll
Santa Claus is too old and too white — but mostly just too white. That is the opinion expressed in a recent column by Slate culture blogger Alisha Harris, who recounted her painful feelings of being disenfranchised each Christmas as a black girl growing up in a world full of mostly white Santa Clauses.
Harris tells readers that she first began to brood over old St. Nick’s racial makeup at a young age upon noticing that the images of the benevolent holiday icon in her childhood home depicted a being whose “skin was as dark as mine.” Meanwhile, outside the family home, at “pre-school and the local mall, visible in all of my favorite Christmas specials,” Harris was confronted with a world more familiar with a rosy-cheeked white man with a penchant for making children happy. Who was this white imposter?
“Seeing two different Santas was bewildering,” Harris writes. “Eventually I asked my father what Santa really looked like. Was he brown, like us? Or was he really a white guy?”
The columnist’s father, according to her account, provided an answer masterful in its employment of the sort of Christmas magic which invariably accompanies seasonal holiday legend: “My father replied that Santa was every color. Whatever house he visited, jolly old St. Nicholas magically turned into the likeness of the family that lived there.”
Unfortunately, the young Harris remained bothered that race wasn’t an issue for Kris Kringle and relays to her readers the shame that she felt each time she considered the possibility that the black Santa “wasn’t the ‘real thing.’”
Considering that Harris is now a grown woman, one might be tempted to assume that the writer has since learned how much “real thing” there actually is to the Santa Claus story. Of course, this is a politically correct society — and Harris is on a mission to save other minority children from the haunting racial quandary of white Santa.
“Two decades later, America is less and less white, but a melanin-deficient Santa remains the default in commercials, mall casting calls, and movies,” Harris laments. “Isn’t it time that our image of Santa better serve all the children he delights each Christmas?”
Never fear, Harris has come up with a plan to reverse the millennia-old folklore that is partially responsible for St. Nick’s lack of blackness.
Harris’ vision of Christmas future includes a politically correct fix for what she perceives as egregious racism that must be responsible for soiling happy holidays for an untold number of non-white celebrants in Christmas past and Christmas present.
She presents a Santa Claus who is not white, black or of any other race — a Santa who isn’t even human.
I propose that America abandon Santa-as-fat-old-white-man and create a new symbol of Christmas cheer. From here on out, Santa Claus should be a penguin.
That’s right: a penguin.
Why, you ask? For one thing, making Santa Claus an animal rather than an old white male could spare millions of nonwhite kids the insecurity and shame that I remember from childhood. Whether you celebrate the holiday or not, Santa is one of the first iconic figures foisted upon you: He exists as an incredibly powerful image in the imaginations of children across the country (and beyond, of course). That this genial, jolly man can only be seen as white–and consequently, that a Santa of any other hue is merely a “joke” or a chance to trudge out racist stereotypes–helps perpetuate the whole “white-as-default” notion endemic to American culture (and, of course, not just American culture).
And for all of the troglodytes (probably the same classless bunch refusing to trade “happy holidays” for “Merry Christmas”) who would prefer that St. Nick remain human, Harris reminds: “[P]eople love penguins” and, unlike penguins “human Santa can be terrifying.”
Aside from residing in the North Pole, the author goes on to explain, Penguin Claus can retain all of the other trimmings of the story of St. Nick. And, no matter the purists’ stance, Harris feels it’s the right of this politically correct society to make the necessary changes to de-racialize old Ho-Ho.
“Of course, since we created Santa, we can certainly change him however we’d like — and we have, many times over. Like the holiday itself, Santa has long since been extracted from his religious roots, even if the name St. Nicholas still gets thrown around,” she writes. “Our current design takes inspiration from multiple sources…”
Harris and whoever else of the “happy holiday” bunch wish to go along ought to launch their segregate Penguin Holiday, if only to test the waters. Certainly there would be no populist backlash from groups of Americans who would prefer to allow Santa to remain human. And further, it would certainly not lead any children to feel as badly as Harris did growing up when they ponder why a giant flightless bird is delivering their gifts while some of their friends — those with parents who are averse to politically correct pandering — are visited by a jolly old hirsute man.
Harris is right in noting that the current popular version of Santa Claus is a heavily commercialized composite of a variety of folkloric, religious, geographical and literary traditions. But her suggestion to turn Santa into a penguin reveals a little about the author’s own inability to embrace cultures outside of her own.
If the author’s effort were intended to promote a multicultural approach to Santa, her father’s idea was far better than her own. Telling her readers that Santa must be remade into an animal because darker-skinned Americans are not fairly represented by the mainstream iteration of the holiday icon should be viewed as an insult to the imagination and intelligence of minorities in the United States. She has essentially said to non-white Americans: I think many of your children will have a much easier time relating to a flightless bird than they will a white man.
A better approach to making Santa more multicultural would be to highlight the rich stories behind the legendary character and the ways in which he has changed in the time since the original stories about a kindly man born in 280 A.D. in the region that is now Turkey began to surface. Of course, that would entail acknowledging the religious tradition that today’s commercialized Christmas cannibalized. And, for someone who wants St. Nick to be turned into a penguin, the only thing worse than Santa’s Caucasian hue would probably be a jolly white guy who brings children gifts and has a background steeped in religious tradition.