Right now, countless American families are decorating their homes for Christmas, with trees, ornaments, lights, and everything else that comes with the season.
But there are particulars that vary from household to household and community to community. Christian families might emphasize the religious aspect of the holiday, with Jesus figurines and other decorations. Apartment dwellers might opt for an artificial tree instead of the real thing. And African American families might have a black Santa instead of a white one.
This was true for me, it was true for my friends, and it was true for Slate’s Aisha Harris, who used that observation to argue for more diverse representations of the mythological figure who marks the season for millions around the world. Why not make Santa a penguin, she asks? That way, everyone can celebrate the figure without the racial baggage that marks so much of American life. As she writes:
[L]et’s ditch Santa the old white man altogether, and embrace Penguin Claus—who will join the Easter Bunny in the pantheon of friendly, secular visitors from the animal kingdom who come to us as the representatives of ostensibly religious holidays. It’s time to hand over the reins to those deer and let the universally beloved waddling bird warm the hearts of children everywhere, regardless of the color of their skin.
Yes, as a figure, “Santa Claus” has his roots in early Christian Europe, Dutch folklore, and Germanic paganism. But he’s a human creation, and given his role as a non-sectarian symbol for the holiday, it’s reasonable to want to remove race from the equation as well.
Unless, that is, you’re Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, and have built your career on white racial panic. Then the idea that Santa could be anything but a white man is ridiculous, bordering on offensive. “[F]or you kids watching at home,” said Kelly during her primetime news show on Wednesday, “Santa just is white. But this person is arguing that maybe we should also have a black Santa.” That’s not what Harris wrote, at all, but why let accuracy get in the way of outrage?
Indeed, Kelly couldn’t leave this alone, and went even further. Not only is Santa obviously a white man—and can’t be anything else—but it’s clear that Jesus was also white. “Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change. You know, I mean, Jesus was a white man too,” she said.
Now, it is true that—for almost two millennia—Europeans have portrayed Jesus Christ as a European. But the historical Jesus of Nazareth was a Galilean Jew who lived in Roman Palestine, or present-day Israel. In all likelihood, he was—like his disciples and contemporaries—dark-haired, dark-eyed, and olive-skinned. Indeed, early depictions show him as such, with short, close-cropped hair (the long-haired Jesus doesn’t appear in iconography until the 6th century).
In general, when Christians have visualized Jesus, they’ve done so in their own context. Ethiopian Christians, for instance, depicted Christ—and other biblical figures—as Ethiopians. Likewise, Coptic Christians in Egypt depicted Jesus as Egyptian, and Chinese Christians in the 19th century imagined Jesus as Chinese.
Kelly’s not wrong to say that Santa Claus is European—that’s his heritage. But there’s little chance that Jesus is white, and asserting otherwise is just as ludicrous as the declaration—made by some Christians—that Jesus spoke the early modern English of the King James Bible. At best, the assertion of Jesus’s whiteness reflects ignorance. At worst, it’s a sign of racial prejudice.
Which is to say that, if Kelly is going to make broad claims about the historical Jesus (or Santa Claus, for that matter), then she should probably read a few books. I could even recommend a few, if she’s looking for a Christmas gift to herself.