“Santa just is white…”
– Megyn Kelly, Fox news anchor, 11 December 2013.
Controversy arose this holiday season when Fox News host Megyn Kelly declared that Santa Claus was white. Kelly voiced this opinion while discussing a Slate piece entitled “Santa Claus Should Not Be a White Man Anymore” with a panel of guests. She continued, stating that “just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change.”
The incident raises several questions: Why must Santa Claus be white, and why is it so important? In what context is Kelly making these assertions? And why should we care?
The figure of Santa Claus is an amalgamation of many different characters and traditions, emerging to become the recognizable figure we know today only fairly recently. Although the origins of Santa Claus are mostly European, the tradition has grown in such a way that people of many different ethnic backgrounds now celebrate this tradition. And yet, according to Kelly, it is imperative that we continue to conceptualize Santa as a man of European descent.
Unfortunately, racial elements of the Santa Claus mythology are also present in areas further afield. In Holland, Sinterklaas is celebrated, wearing a costume reminiscent of the Catholic clergy, and he is accompanied by a figure known as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), wearing blackface, gold earrings, prominent red lipstick and an “afro-style” wig.
According to this tradition, Sinterklaas and his servant (or slave according to some accounts) Swarte Piet, reside in Spain throughout the year. Swarte Piet wears the costume of a Moorish character similar to those worn in Spain during annual re-enactments of the “Reconquista.” (The Reconquista is the period of time stretching from the 700s to the year 1492, when the last Moorish kingdom, Grenada, fell to Christian conquerors. During this period of time, Spain was ruled by Muslims who called the place Al-Andalus.¹ This historical event is re-enacted each year to celebrate the re-Christianization of Spain).
Originally Sinterklaas’ servant was portrayed as a dark devil. This figure was reincarnated in the 19th century as a character resembling a Moor (Moorish clothing, “darker” skin, etc.). Through this transformation we can see the literal demonization of Muslims and people of Middle Eastern origin (the people who came from the Middle East to Spain also included many people of Jewish faith).
Although Megyn Kelly’s pronouncements have been viewed as controversial, in reality, the news anchor is merely continuing a tradition of using Christmas practices and traditions in order to demonize “the Other” as conceived of as essentially different from Christian Europeans.
Kelly also went on to claim that another prominent Christmas figure was white, saying “You know, I mean, Jesus was a white man, too. He was a historical figure; that’s a verifiable fact.” The ridiculousness of portrayals of Jesus as a fair, blue-eyed Anglo-Saxon should be fairly obvious considering that the generally agreed upon “ethnic” identity of the figure of Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew.
Furthermore, all of these designations are fairly slippery conceptually due to the fact that “race” is actually a cultural construction, with no biological or scientific basis. Unfortunately responses to Kelly’s assertion of Jesus’ white ethnicity did not include a deconstruction of the concept of race. This approach would be much more useful than reinforcing the concept of racial difference through responding to Kelly by insisting that Jesus was “Middle Eastern.” In fact, the designation of “Middle Eastern” as a distinct racial category has only recently come into existence, along with the concept of a “Judeo-Christian” heritage, defined in contradistinction to Middle Eastern/Arab/Muslim identity.² As Ivan Kalmar, a professor at the University of Toronto, has pointed out, historically Jewish and Muslim figures were portrayed in similar ways in the West, as a common enemy of Christian Europeans.
Returning to the character of Zwarte Piet, there is yet another slippage occurring here: the conflation of “Middle Eastern Moor” with African slave. In other words, the boogie man of Europe in the Middle Ages was reincarnated with the face of an African slave just as the trans-Atlantic slave trade was drawing to a close in the 19th century. Was this a newer collective enemy reimagined in the clothes of the old?
Over the past few years there have been protests in Holland over the continuation of the Swarte Piet tradition, with many Dutch people of African origin regarding the character as a racist representation, which should be modified or scrapped entirely.
Although many international commentators have criticized the Zwarte Piet character, a 2013 survey found that 92% of the Dutch public do not regard Zwarte Piet as racist and do not associate the figure with slavery. The same survey found that 91% of those surveyed oppose changes to the appearance of Zwarte Piet.
Rather than perpetuate and celebrate racial stereotypes, reinforcing the historical and political forces which have shaped those stereotypes, the stir over Megyn Kelly’s ‘controversy’ is the perfect opportunity to teach children about the culturally constructed nature of race and to challenge these tired, old assumptions. This incident should show us that it’s time to critically examine our holiday practices, fully understanding the development and evolution of these traditions, and discarding the aspects of them which we now find disrespectful. In other words, it’s time to excavate and reveal the racial underpinnings of Christmas.
¹ For more information on Al-Andalus, see these two excellent documentaries:
When the Moors Ruled in Europe (2005)
An Islamic History of Europe (2009)
² It must also be pointed out that none of these three terms are actually synonymous. People of many ethnic backgrounds practice Islam. There are also many different ethnic and linguistic groups within the Middle East, such as Arab, Persian, Kurd, etc. Furthermore, the term Middle East is a concept which has been constructed through the drawing of boundaries by colonial and imperial forces historically.