David Russell Mosley
5 December 2016
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire
It seems that every year I encounter something that makes feel the need to give a defense of Father Christmas, often known here in the States as Santa Claus. This year is no different. A few days ago, the Mall of America hired its first black Santa. Apparently this is a big deal. Actually, in some ways I can understand why it is. After all a few years ago, Megan Kelly lost it at the idea that, in order to be racially inclusive, some people were considering representing Santa as a penguin. Now, I must admit, I find this equally ridiculous. For starters, penguins are antarctic creatures, not arctic creatures. A polar bear would make infinitely more sense. Or a reindeer. Still, I do think it rather important that he remain a man. But how are we to handle his race? Or ought we to? Ought we to abandon Santa altogether? Well, let me attempt a few answers.
One possible way to answer this question is to get historical. St. Nicholas of Myra was from modern day Turkey. So, he certainly wouldn’t look like me or the red-haired version in the Rankin-Bass Santa Claus is Coming to Town. The problem with this, of course, is that St. Nicholas is dead. We celebrate that fact tomorrow (December 6th). Now, this could certainly add an interesting element to the story of Santa: zombie Santa! But that seems to miss the point of Santa (to which I will return). So, if you still want to tell your kids that someone comes to their house one night a year and gives them presents, it might be best not to tell them that it’s a dead guy.
Instead, I think we need to allow Santa to be culturally adaptable. Now, this is actually quite difficult in many ways. After all, a black family can tell stories about a black Santa, but if they let their kids watch TV Christmas specials, or go to most malls, they’re likely to see a white Santa. After all, blacks are still a minority in the United States, and when that’s combined with aspects of institutional racism, black children are going to be far more likely to encounter white Santas. But in a sense, this is why we need characters like Santa, we need them to transcend these issues of race.This is one of many reasons I prefer Father Christmas to Santa Claus. Santa Claus embroils us in issues of an undead historical figure sneaking into our houses at night. That’s Dracula’s territory. Father Christmas, can be totally adaptable, and yet still relatable to Santa Claus. But whether we go with Father Christmas, Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, he can become within reason, whatever we need him to be. Think about all the depictions of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or any of the saints. Depending on who’s doing the painting, they can appear white, black, Asian, or more like their actual ethnicities. The key is that these figures, while historical, have also transcended their historicity. They have come to mean more than just the brute facts of where and when they were born. Not that they have left these behind. Christ is still a first-century Jew, Nicholas of Myra is still a Greek-Turk, and yet they are not just those things. One is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. The other is a saint, one who can intercede on our behalf. They are both so much bigger than their historical circumstances that they are their historical circumstances as well (this is similar to how it is precisely God’s transcendence that allows his immanence). It is precisely, now anyway, because St. Nicholas is St. Nicholas that allows him also to be Nicholas of Myra, the man who punched Arius, the man who left bags of gold for three young women about to be sold into slavery. And yet, of course, it is these things that show him to be saint, just as it is Christ’s life that showed him to be the Son of God, or that it is God’s immanence that allows us to understand the he is transcendent.
So, back to Santa Claus. I, of course, have no problem with the Mall of America hiring a black Santa (though I might take issue with the whole notion of malls, which sell toys, hiring Santas to help sell those toys). Father Christmas transcends race and ethnicity and therefore can be represented by any race or ethnicity. The more important thing to remember here is what Father Christmas represents. He represents generosity and gratuity. As G. K. Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy, “Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?” Santa, like all the saints, is actually a representation of Christ, of God. He is an embodiment of our need to be thankful to someone for the gift of our being. Of course, God is the one to whom we ought to be thankful, and that is precisely what we are doing when we are thankful to Father Christmas for gifts, especially for the gift of being.
So be thankful, be grateful. And stop complaining about the “race” of Santa Claus.