Santa is loosely based on Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century Greek bishop known for secret gift-giving. But while the names “St. Nicholas” and “Santa Claus” are often used interchangeably, modern-day Santa hardly resembles his supposed inspiration, who was depicted as tall and thin and, you know, Greek. He did not have a workshop in the North Pole nor eight faithful reindeer. Santa as we know him today is the result of wild imaginations and creative input from many people across centuries, including, as I noted in my piece, Washington Irving and Clement Clark Moore. He’s utterly divorced from his religious and historical roots.
Alyssa provides more history:
Santa Claus is frequently depicted as a white guy today precisely because of what Kelly said we absolutely must not do: “revise it in the middle of the legacy of the story.”
As part of the long process of formalizing a celebration of the birth of Christ–which includes shifting the purported date of Jesus’ arrival in the world to midwinter to coopt pagan observances and then suppressing said observances–Saint Nicholas gets mashed up with other figures. These include Sinterklass, who may be a variation of the Norse god Odin, and who’s part of holiday observances in places as varied as the Netherlands and Greece. Father Christmas, the British character, has analogues in South America, most European countries, and the Caucuses. And this isn’t even including characters like Zwarte Piet, who’s part of Christmas folklore in Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium, who is, wait for it, of African origin.
In the United States, many people and organizations have contributed to our modern conception of Santa Claus’ physical appearance, including the the political cartoonist and muckracker Thomas Nast, the White Rock Beverage company which used him to sell mineral water, and Haddon Sundblom, who drew Santa Claus for Coca-Cola’s famous 1930s advertising campaign.
Relying on the historical argument to prove or disprove whether Santa is white is essentially insane. Because, and I’m going to go out on a limb here, but I will argue that once you give the guy a workshop of magical elves, eight tiny flying reindeer, and the ability to distend his corpulent body down a billion chimneys in a night, historical verisimilitude no longer obtains. Santa–avert your eyes, kids–is a fictional character, and as such, can plausibly be represented and colored any damn way you want him. (Or her! Yeah, I said it.) To say that he “is just white” because that’s the way fictional pictures of him have mostly appeared is to say that your pictures and traditions are solely legitimate, authentic, the cultural default. (A message that seems aimed not so much at the kids as at an audience of adult viewers terrified of cultural change in Obama’s America.)
(Painting of Saint Nicholas via Wikimedia Commons)