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Sorry Megyn, Santa Claus Is Not White

Can philosophy or history settle the question of Santa’s color?

Fox News’s Megyn Kelly recently assured the children watching her program that “Santa just is white.” She was responding to Slate writer Alisha Harris’ suggestion that Santa should be an animal (like the Easter bunny) instead of a human, so that no child of any race would be uncomfortable or confused by a Santa that did not share their skin color (Harris proposed a penguin.) Megyn’s comment was meant to protect the “Santa belief” of children who might be confused regarding how there could be a debate about what color Santa “should be” if Santa really exists. “We’re just debating this because someone wrote about it kids.” But it spawned a media firestorm. Harris herself replied, along with John Stewart, SNL, Jimmy Kimmel, and MSNBC’s Toure Neblett.

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Now there are all kinds of social and political issues to consider here, and this also a debate about Santa’s “race”—which could get really complicated because race really has no biological basis, and is more a social construct. But here I’m interested in one simple question, which really does seem to be at the bottom of all this: Is Santa’s skin white?

Bill O’Reilly came to Megyn’s aid, claiming that her statement was historically accurate, since the historical St. Nicholas was white. Does that settle the issue? Not really. It turns out the question of Santa’s skin color is not as easy to answer as it first appears.

First, there is a philosophical question to consider: How can something be true of a fictional character? Philosophers generally accept the correspondence theory of truth, which suggests that propositions are true when they correspond to the way the world is—some “truthmaker” in the world that makes the proposition true. “Johney Johnson is white” is true because of a state of affairs in the world: the fact that my son’s skin reflects a certain frequency of light (and society has decided to label “light peach” as “white” when it comes to skin tone). But Santa has no skin tone—Santa has no skin—he is a fictional character. It seems that there is no state of affairs to which “Santa is white” can correspond, or fail to correspond, to make it true or false. This raises an interesting question: How could anything be true of a fictional character if the correspondence theory of truth is true?

There is extensive debate on this issue, but for my money I think the answer is simple: there are states of affairs in the world that can serve as truthmakers for statements about fictional characters—facts about what the stories involving those fictional characters contain. So, for example, even though there was no historical Othello, “Othello has dark skin” is true because “Othello is a Moor” is established in the Shakespearian play of the same name, and Moors had darker skin. (To be fair, there is debate regarding whether Shakespeare intended Othello to be a black African, or an Arab or Spanish Moor).

So, now we wonder, does Santa’s story establish him as being white skinned?

Othello is easy; he has one definitive story that has one author. Santa Claus—not so much. There are more stories and depictions of Santa than just about any other fictional character. There is “’Twas The Night Before Christmas,” (originally titled “A Visit from St. Nick”, but I will call it “the poem” for short). It says he had rosy cheeks and cherry nose, but that’s presumably from the cold, and not necessarily derivative of his skin tone. Besides, it also says he was a tiny “elf” with a “miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,” yet most would not think that depiction of Santa is accurate. He’s a full grown person. So we can’t look to the poem to decide the issue.

Can we instead, like O’Reilly suggested, look to the history of Santa’s myth to settle the issue? Would the color of St. Nicholas’ skin establish Santa’s whiteness?

No. For one thing, St. Nicholas was not white. If he existed at all (which I personally doubt), he lived in what is now Turkey, and likely looked like this—much more like Osama Bin Laden than today’s average “white male” or Coca-Cola’s Santa Claus.  As John Stewart pointed out, if St. Nicholas were alive today, he would be on the no-fly list. By the broadest definition, he might be considered Caucasian today, but no one would have described anyone as “white” during St. Nicholas’ day, much less St. Nicholas himself, and he certainly didn’t have white skin.

Secondly, St. Nicholas’ skin tone wouldn’t settle the issue because Santa Claus is not based primarily on St. Nicholas. It’s said that Santa’s gift giving derives from St. Nicholas giving gifts of gold to a father trying to marry off his daughters, but this story is apocryphal (borrowed from Philostratus’ stories about the Pythagorean philosopher Apollonius), and added to Nicholas’ story much later. Besides, the story does not say that Nicholas did this annually—so it can’t explain that part of Santa’s lore. And go back and read the poem again. What Saint rides in a sleigh, wears fur, sports a giant white beard, smokes a stump of a pipe, owns flying livestock, and is covered in soot? And if Santa is based on St. Nicholas, why aren’t his reindeer named “Faith, Hope and Charity” instead being named after elemental powers like “Donder” (thunder) and “Blitzen” (Lightening)? (Source) But if Santa Claus didn't get all of this from St. Nicholas, from whom did he get it?

Santa likely got his fur wearing and sooty dirtiness from the protestant German tradition of Belsnickel—a dirty, disheveled December visitor that brought (and in some places still brings) punishments and small treats to the children of America’s German immigrants, especially in Pennsylvania. Relevant to the debate: Those who portrayed Belsnickle usually donned…you guessed it…blackface.

Belsnickel is a combination of St. Nicholas and his demon henchman, often called Krampus—a half goat half man that Nicholas led around in chains and would unleash on naughty children in Europe. Krampus is usually covered in black fur, and it is from Krampus that Santa gets a number of his traits. For example, Krampus carries a bottomless sack in which he can stuff kids to carry them off to hell. This is where Santa’s bottomless sack of presents came from. You could also always tell when Nicholas and Krampus were coming because of the rattling of Krampus' chains. As the legend developed, the chains were replaced by bells. In Austria, they are large cow bells and on Belsnickel they became smaller—but that is why jingle bells always announce Santa’s arrival.

Krampus was based on old pagan half-man, half-goat phallus-wielding fertility deity that the church tried to “depose” when it Christianized what is now Germany. One way they did so was by equating him with the Devil—that’s why depictions of Satan often portray him with goat legs and a pitch fork. In efforts to spruce up their morality plays they often cast this character as comic relief. His entrance catchphrase was “Ho, Ho, Ho”—so now you know where that comes from.

Another way the church deposed Krampus was by making him St. Nicholas’ sidekick, but, before that, he was often called “Claus” (pronounced like “louse”, short for Niklaus). In fact, my research suggests, St. Nicholas—like many other Catholic saints—may just be a Christianization of this pagan deity. Mars became St. Martin, Demeter became St. Demetrios, and Claus because Saint Claus. This is even how the Dutch name for St. Nicholas—Sinterklass—translates. So, ultimately, the whole Santa mythology may trace back to a half-goat pagan fertility deity. Does the historical question of Santa’s skin color even make sense anymore?

There were medieval traditions suggesting that St. Nicholas (with Krampus in tow) would visit annually, delivering small gifts (and Krampus punishments) riding on a flying white horse, but these traditions were borrowed from pagan lore as well. The Norse God Odin visited annually on an eight legged white horse named Sleipnir, accompanied by the goddess Berchta bestowing blessings, on what was eventually to become St. Nicholas day, Dec 6th.  Odin even sported a giant white beard, just like Santa Claus. And if a flying horse isn’t enough for you, the Norse god Thor had a chariot pulled by flying goats named Gnasher (thunder) and Cracker (lightening) (i.e., Donder and Blitzen).

So, is Santa white? No. It is true that, in modern America, Santa is usually depicted as a friendly, adult-sized, rotund, white male in a red and white suit. The notion of Santa was popularized by the poem, Santa’s general outline was created by Thomas Nast, and his outfit’s colors (red and white) were solidified (but not created) by Coca-Cola. Even his modern European equivalents, such as Father Christmas, have been primarily white. But that’s because the people who worship him generally are. Because he is a myth, he is made into what his followers need him to be. In capitalistic America, we needed him to move merchandise—to sell Coke and convince the populace (who was primarily white) to buy toys for our children. So he became a lovable white toy maker. But Santa is not definitively any one color (or race, or species for that matter). And because of our increasing diversity, we may now need him to be color and racially neutral—and once it’s clear that we do, he will change. If marketing research revealed that people’s attitudes had changed, and making Santa into a penguin would increase corporate profits, you can damn well guarantee that Santa would become a penguin—probably overnight.

That’s not to say that everyone will be happy about it. People cling to traditions for inexplicable reasons, and Santa Claus is the most favored tradition of all. The Megyn Kelly’s of the world will just have to be drug along, kicking and screaming, until their screams die out or the new image is accepted as a new tradition. (This happens often with Christmas traditions; they are invented with an already existing allure of being “old-fashioned.”)

But, for what it’s worth, we are not the only society having this debate this year. In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas is accompanied, not by Krampus, but by Black Peter—an impish little man in black face and traditional Spanish garb. When the Dutch were under the rule of the Spanish, they changed Santa’s sidekick into a Spaniard, in an effort to express their dissatisfaction with their rulers. It’s undeniable that Black Peter is black skinned; he’s always been portrayed by someone in blackface, and it’s right there in his name. But, today, Black Peter simply looks like a racist stereotype and is creating significant social unrest and racial tension. In all honesty, he probably does need to change. But I wouldn’t say that too loud; Quinsy Gario has received death threats for suggesting as much. “Black Peter just is black.” At least we haven’t gone that far… yet.

David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy at King's College in Pennsylvania.

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