“White” Christmas?

You’ve probably heard about this year’s Christmas media fiasco.  Megyn Kelly of Fox News responded to columnist Aisha Harris’ provocative Slate.com article, “Santa Claus Should Not Be a White Man Anymore.”  Kelly reassured any kids that might be watching that Santa Claus was indeed–period–and later added that Jesus was too.  Responding to the derision and controversy that followed, Kelly claimed that she had meant her comments to be “tongue-in-cheek,” and then accused her critics of being “humorless” and “targeting” both her and Fox.

So many things could be said here.  But speaking as a person of color raised in middle-class America, I want to focus on what I believe we as Christians can and should take away from this unfortunate debate.

Most importantly: Kelly’s comments, including her response to the firestorm, miss the point of the column.  Harris was not arguing the ethnic or racial identity of any historical person (such as the bishop St. Nicholas), but was writing about her childhood experience of Santa as a cultural symbol. Everywhere she looked at Christmastime, there he was: fat, jolly, and pink-skinned.  But:

Then there was the Santa in my family’s household… A near-carbon copy of the first one… But his skin was as dark as mine.  Seeing two different Santas was bewildering.  Eventually I asked my father what Santa really looked like.  Was he brown, like us?  Or was he really a white guy?  My father replied that Santa was every color.  Whatever house he visited, jolly old St. Nicholas magically turned into the likeness of the family that lived there.

I’m reminded of journalist James McBride’s memoir, The Color of Water.  McBride’s father was a black Baptist preacher; his mother Ruth, a convert to Christianity, was the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi.  When a young James asked his mother what color Jesus was, she responded that he was the color of water.

We need to keep the historical person and the cultural symbol connected but distinct.  It’s one thing to identify the ethnic and racial heritage of historical persons.  But when people become cultural icons–religious or political symbols vested with values, hopes and dreams–the meaning and significance of that question changes.  It becomes personal: Are these hopes and dreams for us?  For me?  Or just someone else?

Both the historical and the symbolic were implied in young Aisha’s question about Santa to her father, who answered by saying that Santa is every color, while Ruth McBride answered the question about Jesus by saying that he was of no color.

Do things like skin color and ethnic origin matter?  Yes.

But wait: shouldn’t we be “colorblind”?  Well, it depends on what you mean by that.  If it means not judging a person’s value by his/her color, then yes.  But if in actual practice it means being blind to how our own characteristics shape our perceptions and responses, then no.

My concern here, of course, is not about Santa, but Jesus (since they’ve been lumped into the same discussion).  I’m not sure what value there is in saying that Jesus was historically a “white” man: better to say that he was Jewish, and that his Jewishness mattered to his sense of identity and mission.

But this immediately becomes both an historical and symbolic question, even in the pages of the New Testament itself.  In Acts and the letters of Paul, we are given a front row seat to the ethnic confusion of the early church.  For whose benefit is this strange gospel of a crucified Jewish Messiah?  Are Gentiles included in the plans of the God of Israel?  Should they then be made more Jewish?  Etc., etc.

If we give Megyn Kelly the benefit of the doubt, we can say she was just joking (though see Prov 26:18-19).  But if so, frankly, it’s a poor joke.  Kelly had read Harris’ column.  Who, then, were the “kids” she thought she was reassuring?  Did she have in mind someone like a young Aisha Harris?  If yes: where was either the humor or the reassurance?  If no: well, wouldn’t that be the point?

Bottom line: if the gospel of a crucified and risen Jewish Messiah is meant for every tribe, tongue, people, and nation, we must always strive to be aware of the ways in which our proclamation and symbols carry hidden cultural messages that say, “This isn’t really for you.”

And yes, I’m as capable of that kind of blindness as anyone.  But surely, with God’s help, we can do better.

2 thoughts on ““White” Christmas?

  1. Great commentary on a sensitive issue! I can identify as a person of multi-colors . . . Lithuanian, Asian, Italian . . . trying to fit into one or all. I love what Aisha’s father’s answer to her was, in that Santa is “every color”. The implication of the historical and symbolic were indeed strongly implied by her father’s comment. And to me, it does tie into the the gospel of a crucified and risen Jewish Messiah, who embraced every tribe, tongue, people and nation. And that includes Mutts like me! The other side of this issue is that throughout different parts of the world, Jesus is often drawn or painted to reflect the dominant race or ethnicity of the dominant culture. I’m not certain if all Santa’s around the world are represented as “fat, jolly, and pink-skinned”. Perhaps there are skinny, depressed, and tan-skinned Santas, but that is something I would need to research!

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