Harris wrote: “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).”
Kelly argued: “Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change. Jesus was a white man too. He was a historical figure. That’s a verifiable fact — as is Santa. I just want the kids watching to know that. My point is, how do you just revise it in the middle of the legacy of the story and change Santa from white to black?"
Though there may be a lot of evidence that Kelly was not wrong, the fact is that in the case of both Christ and Santa, there’s reason to allow people to view them the way they want to, to allow them to be malleable characters. The representations of Santa and Christ have changed throughout history, fitting the context of the time they were in. These figures meet different needs for different people, and at a time when America is increasingly diverse, we need representations that can speak to everyone, not just white people.
Kelly's argument seems to have less to do with historical representation and more to do with Fox News’ “white panic.” We can see this in everything from the channel’s “embarrassing interview” with Muslim scholar Reza Aslan and Bill O’Reilly’s racist analysis of Hawaiian demographics to Fox News’ coverage of the Black Panthers, about which Dave Weigel wrote in the Atlantic in 2010: “Why is [Megyn Kelly] doing so many stories on the Panthers? It's because Fox News uses the Panthers the way that Phil Donohue used to use the KKK or G.G. Allin. They're good on TV. The difference between the Panthers and other freakish groups ... is that they threaten white people. This isn't journalism.... This is minstrelsy.”
In creating their own reality, Aslan himself suggested that Fox News and Kelly have missed the entire point of Christianity. As Aslan argued in an interview with the Washington Post, the power of Christ is that he speaks to people of all backgrounds and ethnicities.
“The reason that Christianity spread so rapidly in the first two or three hundred years before the Roman adoption of Christianity is precisely because it was an infinitely malleable idea,” Aslan explained. “As everybody knows, before Roman Orthodoxy, there were a thousand different kinds of Christianity. It could mean whatever you wanted it to mean. And that is precisely why it is now the largest religion in the world, because it has the ability to be whatever a worshipful community wants it to be.”
According to Aslan, Christ has appeared in several forms — including a migrant farm worker, a Hindu god and Chinese — throughout history, blending into different cultures. Although Jesus was a real person who lived in Galilee and may have looked Middle Eastern, there’s a difference between the person and a changeable concept. Kelly’s Christ is white, and maybe the historical Jesus was white, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s is.
For Christians, it can be important to see a Jesus Christ that reflects your own life and struggles. As author Edward J. Blum told NPR, this explains why, in the early 20th century, African Americans created a Christ with whom they could identify. Representation isn’t just power. It’s empowerment.
"During the 1920s and 1930s, we see people out of W.E.B. Du Bois' circle drawing Jesus as a Southern black man who is lynched, basically,” Blum said. “And then the second time we see it is during the civil rights movement, during the mid- and late-1960s and the 1970s.... We see the rise of identity politics ... and that's exactly the same time that African Americans are quote unquote 'discovering their roots,' as Alex Haley put it. And so going back to Africa, looking more 'African' becomes important culturally, and so doing that to Jesus happens at the same time."
Like Jesus, Santa Claus is based on a real person: St. Nicholas, “born in the city of Patara, now known as Arsinoe, in Turkey.” He’s often cited as Greek, but Alyssa Rosenberg of ThinkProgress hypothesized that due to the region’s ethnic makeup, “his skin tone might well have been such that it would have gotten him stopped and frisked while trying to enter homes in certain neighborhoods in New York City late at night.”
However, the Santa we now celebrate doesn’t strictly adhere to St. Nicholas’ life. Our understanding of the character was also framed by writers Washington Irving and Clement Clark Moore, whose 1823 “A Visit from St. Nicholas” described him as a “plump but elfin figure.” But more than anything, the Santa we know today is a multicultural composite figure who also pays homage to Britain’s Father Christmas; Zinterklass, who has his origins in Norse myth; and the Dutch Zwarte Piet, a figure of “African origin.”
There is no singular St. Nick. He belongs to the world. As ThinkProgress’ Rosenberg argued, de-racializing Santa is a way of giving him to everyone. Rosenberg said: “Santa Claus is frequently depicted as a white guy today precisely because of what Kelly said we absolutely must not do: ‘revise it in the middle of the legacy of the story.’ ”
Aisha Harris’ suggestion — that we make Santa Claus into a penguin instead — might seem ludicrous to some, but it’s a tongue-in-cheek solution to a problem that should be addressed. It might be hard for people like Megyn Kelly to give up the privilege of seeing a Santa that reflects their own image, but white people shouldn't have a monopoly on the experience of the holidays.
If this time of year is truly about giving, this may be the best gift you can give to the people who continually find themselves left out every holiday season.