Conservative talk show host Megyn Kelly claimed on her Fox News show last week that “For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white ... just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change, you know, I mean, Jesus was a white man, too ... that’s a verifiable fact, I just want kids to know that.”
This statement was in response to a Slate piece by Aisha Harris, “Santa Should Not Be a White Man Anymore,” which notes her confusion between seeing a black Santa figurine in her home while white Santas were popularized elsewhere at the mall and her school. Because the real history of St. Nicholas is so far removed from his present iteration as Santa Claus, she argues that it would be easier and less culturally problematic to change him into a penguin. This avoids questions of race and culture and makes him accessible to all. While I see her point about wanting to avoid cultural problems, it might be a good idea to confront the underlying issue of racism in America rather than continue to ignore it.
On that note, I would like to confront the factually incorrect statements made by Kelly in response to Harris.
- “Santa just is white.” First, Santa isn’t real. So, I’m assuming she’s talking about the person upon which his legend is based, St. Nicolas. According to The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, St. Nicholas was born in the fourth century and became the bishop of Myra. Myra is located in present day Turkey. Supposedly, he provided three different girls each with a sack of gold to serve as dowries and rescue them from a life of prostitution. Over time, the legend grew and meshed with Norse legends. Immigrants brought these legends to North America, and the modern Santa Claus was pretty much manufactured by Norman Rockwell, Coca-Cola, and other manufacturers of goods that wanted to ramp up Christmas sales.
So what did the ancient Turkish gift-giver look like? A composite, made from forensic anthropologists who reconstructed his skeleton from his crypt in Bari, Italy, shows that he looked very much like modern-day Turkish men. I think we can agree that he doesn’t look like a typical white American male, though that categorical racial box is very problematic and fraught with ambiguity. It might be more accurate to say that he would not experience the privileges of being a white male in American society.
- “Jesus was a white man, too.” Wrong again. Jesus was a Palestinian Jew in first-century Nazareth. This was a poor village in the shadow of the large city of Sepphoris. He, his father and his brothers, while stylized as artistic carpenters in the Christmas story, are actually more akin to day laborers who would have walked miles everyday to find work and survive in the shadow of the powerful Roman rulers who controlled the land. When he grew up, he heard about numerous uprisings to throw off the Roman yoke and started speaking out against the political powers and the religious leaders who collaborated with them. Speaking out too much and being referred to as “The King of the Jews” caused him to be executed for sedition.
The United States is arguably the Rome of the modern world. We are the most powerful nation on Earth. Jesus would not identify with the privilege of being an average United States citizen. He did not live in abundant opulence like we do, when 50 percent of the world lives on less than $2.50 a day (80 percent on less than $10 a day). If Jesus were an American, he would more likely identify as an undocumented immigrant or other poor, oppressed class, given his historical social standing and statement regarding wealth and poverty.
Regarding Jesus’ appearance, he most certainly would be flagged for a security check and racially profiled by TSA. According to forensic anthropologists who examined countless remains from that time period to find the most likely image, he looked like a Middle-Eastern male of Arabic descent.
So, what should we do with this information? We should ask ourselves about the images we hold in our minds of important historical or cultural figures. Are they constructed based on fact or to remake someone in our image for our comfort? Does holding on to historically inaccurate images keep us from becoming a more unified society, where we can appreciate and value one another’s diversity? Perhaps most importantly, do they keep us from seeing people of all races as precious children of God? If so, we may want to smash these false images as idols and dig deeper for the sake of Jesus’ call to love one another as we love ourselves.
Rev. Laura Barclay is an author, consultant, and minister. She previously served the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina for five years as the Social Ministries Coordinator. She is now working on a book that will be released by Smyth & Helwys in Spring 2014, titled With Us in the Wilderness: Finding God’s Story in Our Lives. She resides in Louisville, Ky., with her spouse, Rev. Ryan Eller. If you are interested in having her speak or consult on spirituality, social justice or communications issues at your congregation, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.