For the first time in its history, the Mall of America has bestowed the honor of being Santa to a Black man. The backlash has been so virulent that Minnesota’s Star Tribune had to disable the comments section underneath its announcement. Santa Claus may be fictional, but the hateful backlash to his representation by a Black man is more real than ever in Donald Trump's America — which did not invent racism, but has clearly empowered it.
It is that time of year again: Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose, Yuletide carols being sung by a choir, and tiny tots with their eyes all aglow still finding it hard to escape the perennial battle over Santa Claus’ “true” identity.
By identity, I do not just mean whether he truly exists, or how he can simultaneously be in so many places at the same time, but also the phenotypic representation of his very likeness. As I pull my holiday decorations from the attic and reminisce on Christmases past, I am struck by the salience of Santa’s identity at a time when the culture war raging outside is so frightful.
Not only am I faced with the choice of engaging my tiny tots in the folklore of Santa Claus, but also the task of determining who he looks like.
As I go about introducing the spirit of Christmas to my children, I reflect on the ways in which the holiday was first shared with me by my mother. More specifically, I think of the Jackson 5’s Christmas album, which remains a permanent fixture of my December celebrations even to this day. It is hard to choose my favorite track, but when it comes to discussing Santa’s identity, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus deserves special attention. It is impossible to hear young Michael Jackson’s account of his mother kissing Santa underneath the mistletoe without simultaneously visualizing his father, a Black man, as Santa.
Listening as a Black child then and today as an adult woman and mother, I am filled with a sense of pride and joy in the acceptance and affirmation of my identity.
It was this same pride that propelled me to paint my shade of brown over the rosy pink faces of our wooden Santa and Mrs. Claus yard decorations in middle school. It is the same joy shown on the faces of the untold scores of Black women who pull their prized Black Santa collections from the attic every December in America. Much like the immense popularity of mainstream Black family sitcoms, and the outpouring of Black pride in the wake of President Obama’s election, the mere existence of a Black Santa is a celebration of equal representation.
It is against this backdrop that for the first time in its twenty-four year history, the Mall of America has bestowed the honor of being Santa to a Black man. Larry Jefferson, a retired U.S. Army Veteran, has been a Santa for seventeen years because he believes “Santa comes in many different colors.”
For those of us who believe Santa is a fictional character, and thus capable of being represented by a multitude of identities, Santa Larry’s egalitarian declaration is not a novel concept.
Unfortunately, on the other hand there are those like Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, who once uttered “for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is White” and “you know, I mean, Jesus was a White man, too” on live television.
The unveiling of Santa Larry has been met with such virulent racist backlash that Minnesota’s Star Tribune had to disable the comments section underneath its announcement.
The parallels between the backlash to Santa Larry and the eight-year backlash to President Obama haunt me as I trim my tree in the wake of Election 2016. As I read the now-daily stream of headlines proclaiming the perceived triumph of White Nationalism in this year’s election, it is a wonder that Kelly stopped short of adding Uncle Sam to her list.
A month after the election, Beltway conventional wisdom holds that Hillary Clinton and the Obama legacy she vowed to uphold were rejected at the polls because they did not adequately represent the White working class. Or to use Kelly’s turn of phrase, the president just is a White man.
The reality is that, for a certain subset of American voters, the president, their Congressional representatives, Santa, Jesus, and anyone else they expect to bestow them with gifts of any kind must necessarily be a White man. At a time when White men find themselves facing ever more dwindling prospects in the global economy, many of them have come to distrust anyone who does not look like them to bring back the joy and pride of a year-round White Christmas.
And so 57 percent of White voters selected the candidate who vowed to “make America great again” by ushering in a typically austere Republican agenda on the back of a culture war waged against every identity different from his own.
Ironically, it is the insidious identity politics he so often rails against that propelled Donald Trump to power — on the folklore that he will be Santa, rather than the Grinch who stole everyone’s Christmas in November.