CHRISTMAS SEASON

The ‘war’ about Santa Claus

 
 
MCT
MCT
Todd / MCT

kathleenparker@washpost.com

In case you missed the most pressing issue of the season — Santa’s race — Fox News’ Megyn Kelly reaped a whirlwind when she recently declared that not only is Santa white but so was Jesus.

“Santa is what he is,” she said. “Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change. You know, I mean, Jesus was a white man, too.”

Kelly was directing her verdict to Slate blogger Aisha Harris, who wrote that Santa should be a penguin instead of a “fat white guy.” Harris recounted growing up with two Santas, one black and one white, but felt ashamed that her Santa was overshadowed by the more broadly accepted, default white Santa.

Not surprisingly, Kelly’s commentary earned her ridicule, mockery and a full-scale national debate (at least on cable TV, where time must be filled) and absurd charges of racism. Had Kelly ignored the article, we might not be engaged in this consequential conversation. No one but Kelly even mentioned Jesus. Instead, she has learned the lesson once articulated by P.J. O'Rourke: “Just as some things are too strange for fiction, others are too true for journalism.”

Obviously, Santa has always been white — at least in white households. And Jesus has to be white. Haven’t you seen all those stained-glass windows?

Except, seriously, he probably wasn’t. A Jew living in the Middle East 2,000 years ago — pre-sunscreen, not to mention at least 40 days wandering in the desert — Jesus probably wasn’t the light-skinned, brown-haired, sometimes blue-eyed lad most Americans of a certain age thought they knew.

As a child I often wondered how black people felt about Jesus and, therefore, God being white. There was a lovely little African-American church on the corner of Gervais and Millwood in Columbia, S.C., where I visited family during the summer, that featured the familiar image of Jesus kneeling in Gethsemane. He was beautiful in a Brad Pitt Legends-of-the-Fall kind of way, so I had a little crush. But I never passed that church without also thinking about the worshipers inside. Didn’t they want a Jesus who looked like them?

And, by extrapolation, a Santa?

Well, yes, it turns out that many did and do, including Harris.

This story would have no flippers if it didn’t hint at a larger issue that isn’t really about race. The skin color of magical elves who fly around in reindeer-drawn sleighs is a far easier conversation than the broader iconoclasm that is really at the root of what Kelly perhaps intuited but failed to convey. But then cable TV, tethered as it is to hits, blips and buzz, doesn’t often lend itself to deep reflection.

It should be no surprise that, as demographics shift, so do cultural icons. It is also understandable that such challenges would be unsettling to many, but there are more sophisticated ways of discussing them without resorting to “The War on (fill in the blank).”

Among other reasons, war demands victory rather than understanding.

At first glance, Santa, the most innocent of icons, seems a gratuitous target for revision. Looking closer, however, diversifying Santa in a nation that elected a black president seems appropriate. When you make up stuff, you can make it up again.

Besides, very young children are oblivious to race. Assuming no racial animus at home, most children would as eagerly climb on the lap of a jolly black Santa as a white one (or any other race/ethnicity). They only want the thrill of the gift and the reassurance (note to New York’s brawling Santas) that all is right with the world.

This is the true gift of Santa. He is a gentle grandfather — a benevolent figure to whom all impossibilities can be presented and conquered. As such, he is a human gesture of kindness to children whose innocence will be ravaged soon enough.

Myths transcend race and serve purposes beyond the material. They elevate our spirits, impart hope and convey values: It is better to give than to receive. Such lessons are more pleasantly absorbed when visions of sugar plums are dancing in our heads.

Which is probably what Kelly meant to say, and might have added: Just because something makes you comfortable doesn’t mean you shouldn’t change it.

© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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