Every Christmas Eve, I dress up as Santa Claus and deliver gifts to Los Angeles-area kids, most of them underprivileged, through a program organized by the Pasadena Junior Chamber of Commerce. Every year we number at least 75 Santas strong, each with our own route and accompanying Mrs. Claus -- who really does all the work because Santa is too busy posing for pictures with the kids. I’m not in charge of the effort, so my opinions here are just my own, but I did find myself reflecting on our merry band when I heard Megyn Kelly assert on Fox News that Santa Claus is, as a point of fact, white.
Because here’s the thing: A lot of us Santas aren’t white. I’m Jewish, which is kind of white (more like eggshell), but many of my fellow Santas are Latino American, African American or Asian American. There are Muslim Santas (real beards!), hipster Santas (also real beards!), Hindu and agnostic Santas. And, of course, there are also also plenty of white, Christian Santas. So, though it’s tempting to dismiss the white Santa controversy as a tempest in a Christmas teapot, the dissonance between the reality of this interracial, interfaith Santa coalition and the assertion that Santa is incontrovertibly white actually speaks to something deeper and more personal about the disconnect between America’s media and the lived reality of most Americans -- and, in a way, about what America itself really means.
To be fair, I do understand the inclination to just roll one’s eyes over Kelly’s comments -- or the reaction to her comments -- and move on. After all, Santa Claus is a nonreligious fictional character whose most common contemporary depiction was created by Coca-Cola in the 1930s, and Kelly isn’t a conservative ideologue in the vein of so many of her Fox News peers.
Indeed, it’s not even clear why the conservatives at Fox News are so fond of Santa Claus in the first place, considering that he’s typically portrayed as a Scandinavian redistributionist who garnishes earnings from productive grownups (in the form of milk and cookies) and then gives handouts to children -- a.k.a. a class of unemployed moochers who pay zero income tax. And has anyone noticed that Santa hands out coal, but only to the bad kids? Is this meant to imply that coal is bad? I mean, who does this guy think he is, Al Gore?
Kidding aside, though, if Kelly had apologized or even fake-apologized (“I’m sorry if people were offended”), the story would have died over the weekend. But by ducking out of a broadcast the night after the incident and then returning Friday night to insist that she was the target of “race-baiting,” Kelly did two things: She showed that she and her network were putting serious consideration into how to address the controversy, and once they did address it, they felt there was more to be gained by standing their ground than by making even a mild conciliatory overture to their critics.
Why did they choose to stoke the fire?
The short answer is that these sorts of superficial controversies drive ratings. But the reason they drive ratings is that they’re proxy battles for much deeper issues. Like spouses in a troubled marriage, it’s too hard to talk about what we’re really talking about, so we fight little battles around the periphery instead.
It’s too hard to admit that the Santa of old holiday cartoons and “Miracle on 34th Street” feels for many Americans like one of the last vestiges of a better time. It’s too hard to explain how disorienting it feels when all the bedrock institutions of our society have collapsed or lost credibility -- our churches, our government, our college sports teams, schools and factories and businesses and so on. It’s hard to accept a new face on an icon like Santa when the white guy from the 1930s seems like one of our last tethers, without which our whole country might become completely unmoored.
Similarly, it’s too hard to talk about how Santa’s purported Caucasian complexion is, for many other Americans, just one more part of our nation’s bounty that powerful white people refuse to share. It’s too hard to point out that if white Americans won’t even share Santa’s face, it doesn’t leave much hope for more important things like jobs with decent wages and access to our country’s healthcare system. And it’s far too painful to talk about the lack of empathy from a white parent who can’t seem to imagine that a black daddy might want to dress up as Santa too, without the lingering fear deep down that his child might wonder why this Santa doesn’t look like the one on TV.
These profound issues of identity are what we’re really fighting about when we argue over seemingly petty issues. We’re arguing about who we are as individuals and as a country, where we have been and where we are going. And there are no easy answers, so instead we call each other racist or oversensitive or hateful or humorless. It’s all extremely depressing.
In the spirit of the season though, here’s the good news: On Christmas Eve, 75 teams of Santas and Mrs. Clauses will fan out across the area spreading Christmas cheer. They will hail from every racial and religious background, coming together across boundaries for the sake of doing something decent. It’s the kind of thing that most people would agree represents what our country can be at its best, and it literally can’t happen if Santa Claus is defined exclusively as white. As such, those who insist that Santa is white are sadly missing out on what actually makes America great. For as the old motto says, e pluribus unum: out of many, one.
Or as Santa would put it: “Ho ho ho.”