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Black Santa: The Gift of Representation

The history of Black Santa in increasing one's belonging.

Source: Pexels
Representation matters for early child development.
Source: Pexels

It’s that time of year again—Santa Claus is coming to town!

But depending on the city you live in, Santa could be white or Black. Here in Durham, North Carolina—my new home and a city that is around 37-40% Black—the annual Christmas parade just happened and again it featured a very jolly Black Santa Claus. This got me thinking: What race is Santa Claus, anyway?

Looking first at Durham's history, it turns out that this tradition is a sign of unity for the Black community here (and simultaneously a boycott of white businesses). Back in 1968, Durham had both a white Christmas on Main Street downtown and a Black Christmas on Fayetteville Street which featured a Black Santa Claus on a parade float. That November, Black Santa Claus for the Black community was a sign of hope and motivation to bring the Black community together. And that is exactly what Santa Claus is supposed to do—he brings families together and increases one’s hope for change. In fact, it was during the 1960s that Black Santa Claus really gained prominence across the U.S. as a symbol in the civil rights movement and as a form of Black empowerment and representation that to date had gone unacknowledged in the average holiday gift guide. In 2015, Black Santa emojis were added for the first time to the quickly expanding iPhone texting dictionary—another form of modern-day representation and inclusion for the Black community.

So why is it that today Santa in most communities maintains his fair complexion? Well, majority rules. But if one traces the history behind the story of Santa Claus himself, you will learn that he is based on a real-life person from the fourth century in what is now modern-day Turkey, which means Santa was likely not white. In fact, this BBC article documents that a 1930s Coca-Cola commercial is who we have to thank for our common association of a white Santa in a bright red suit—American capitalism at its finest!

Across the 1950s and 1960s, Black Santas were seen more and more in shopping malls across the United States which all led up to the famous 2016 Mall of America Black Santa appearance (Larry Jefferson was the lucky Santa hire), which sparked discussion about the color of Santa’s skin. This Washington Post article highlights the magic that Santa brings to a child regardless of his skin color for a child who saw Jefferson dressed as a Black Santa:

“‘Santa Claus?' a boy who appeared to be about 4 years old, asked, according to Jefferson. ‘I didn’t know you were brown?’

‘Yes, I am brown,' Jefferson said. ‘And Santa comes in many different colors.’

'Oh,' the boy said, looking up at him in bewilderment, according to Jefferson. 'It’s always so genuine,' Jefferson said. 'Kids are going to speak their mind at a young age. There needs to be more Santas of color, because this is America, and kids need to see a Santa that looks like them. That helps kids to identify with the love and spirit of the holiday.'"

One’s need to belong is a topic that has been studied for decades in psychology—we all as humans just want to be accepted, seen, and heard. We want to feel like we belong in society, and one prominent way those belonging needs are often met is through visible forms of representation, such as a Black Santa. Being biracial Black/white myself, I grew up with Black Santa ornaments (my dad’s favorite thing at Christmas!), and I didn’t realize until later in life how my flexible view of Santa as white or Black was not the norm. But again, as support for the role context plays in shaping one’s portrayal of Santa, last week I was in the Duke University student store and they had Black Santas and nutcrackers for sale on their shelves! A proud moment for me as a Duke employee.

Another example of Black Santa bringing this sense of belonging is this WGBH radio interview in Boston titled “Black Santa Season: The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” It describes Callie Crossley’s Black Santa collection of figurines, nutcrackers, and dolls which serves as her own positive Black identity reaffirmation during this season each year because she can celebrate her Blackness through Santa. She is quoted: “They simply don’t understand how important it is not only to see yourself reflected in a positive way, but also to be included in time-honored cultural imagery.”

So this holiday season, I hope you all have the gift of representation. Whether it is through your respective version of Santa or watching the Rugrats Chanukah episode, being represented and feeling represented is one of the best gifts in the world. I know that can sound pretty corny, but seeing is believing, which means seeing yourself in the world—Santa or otherwise—is believing in yourself.

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About the Author

Sarah Gaither, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience at Duke University. Her research focuses on the motivation for people's social perceptions and behaviors.