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Were Jesus and Santa white guys? A Fox host says yes

Religion and BeliefFox News Channel (tv network)NazarethThe Washington Post

A side skirmish in the war on Christmas has developed over a Fox News host’s suggestion that both Jesus and Santa Claus were (are?) white men, and that people need to get over it.

Megyn Kelly — incidentally, the subject of a delightful profile this week by Dan Zak in the Washington Post — had this holiday message for young viewers:

"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?"

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Kelly was responding to a piece in Slate by Aisha Harris titled “Santa Claus Should Not be a White Man Anymore.” (Talk about your #slatepitch!) Harris complained that despite the increasing racial diversity of America, “a melanin-deficient Santa remains the default in commercials, mall casting calls and movies. Isn’t it time that our image of Santa better serve all the children he delights each Christmas?”

Tongue possibly in cheek, she suggested that Santa be replaced as an icon of Christmas by ... a penguin! (This suggestion takes on a new weirdness in light of a correction appended to Harris’ piece: “This article originally misidentified penguins as mammals. They are birds.”)

Enter Kelly, and her insistence that not just Santa but the figure he has shifted to the sidelines — Jesus — were white guys.

Is she right?

Santa Claus (St. Nicholas) is rooted in a real person, St. Nicholas of Myra, a 4th century Christian bishop from Asia Minor who, according to legend, was noted for his generosity. (Here’s chapter and verse, from a St. Nicholas website.) Theology buffs also know Nicholas as the defender of orthodoxy who, at a historic church council, supposedly bishop-slapped the heretic Arius. Was this St. Nick white? Well, he may not have been fair-complexioned, but he probably was Caucasian (a politically incorrect term now used mostly by forensics pathologists).

As for the Santa of more recent vintage — the guy with the reindeer and the elves and Mrs. Claus — he definitely has been portrayed as not only Caucasian but Anglo-Saxon (or maybe Irish?). Look at those pink cheeks! But in an era of multicultural casting, it’s hard to object to portraying the mythical Santa as black. (An African American actress played the mother superior in the recent TV production of “The Sound of Music” and only a few viewers seemed to mind).

With Jesus, Kelly may be on firmer ground. In Christian theology, it’s important that the son of God was incarnate in a particular historical figure who lived at a particular time.  Jesus of Nazareth was a Palestinian Jew born during Roman dominion over the Holy Land. As for race, Jesus certainly wasn’t the blond, blue-eyed Messiah of 19th century American devotional paintings, but he probably was “white” in the same way Nicholas of Myra was. (The idea that Jesus looked like a sub-Saharan African worked its way into black nationalist thought in the 1970s, along with the notion that Cleopatra was black.)

But even here there’s a complication. It’s important to Christian theology that Jesus was a Jew, but the church preaches that all men (and women!) share Jesus’ humanity. So it’s not surprising that Christians of different ethnicities portray Jesus with their own pigment and facial features (though that’s not always the case).

So Kelly’s insistence that Jesus and Santa are “white men” may have been fair, but it wasn’t balanced. Bring on the black Jesuses and black Santas. But please, no Penguin Claus.

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