The great debate: Are Jesus and Santa white?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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We have literally run out of things to fight about. And so, we are left with a great debate over whether or not Jesus and Santa are (were?) white. This has “South Park episode” written all over it.

So who’s right? This might be one of those PolitiFact “half true” deals. Jesus’ skin color should be irrelevant to any true believer. And Santa is, of course, a fictional character. On the other hand, there is some historical accuracy to contend with.

In the carnal form, Jesus wasn’t black — nor was he a pale complected guy with blue eyes. As Jonathan Merritt notes: “The scholarly consensus is actually that Jesus was, like most first-century Jews, probably a dark-skinned man.” To the extent Santa is based on St. Nicholas, then he lived in Greco-Roman Lycia (modern Turkey) and probably looked like this.

Conservative Christians ought to be equally upset that Jesus was so often misrepresented as looking like what Merritt describes as “well-groomed surfer-dude Jesus.” And we should be downright outraged that today’s iconic “Santa Claus” image popularized by Harper’s Weekly, Coca-Cola ads (and others) has departed so dramatically from history. And not just in terms of physical appearance.

The real St. Nicholas probably wasn’t fat, didn’t wear a red costume, and most certainly didn’t have flying reindeer. Madison Avenue, it seems, co-opted a saint and turned him into a cartoon. And that’s the real outrage.

So long our culture has already bastardized Santa Claus, it matters little to me how you want to envision him. You want to throw in a ninth reindeer who has a shiny nose? Or you might want to pretend Santa is a penguin. These things are absurd, but the Rubicon has been crossed. So go right ahead and believe it — and feel free to tell your own kids about it. Just don’t try to indoctrinate everyone else’s kids with your own personal Santa.

And that’s sort of my problem with what this. There seems to be a concerted effort to use Jesus and Santa for social engineering purposes. My liberal friend and sparring partner Bill Scher, for example, is praising a 2009 book called “NurtureShock,” which recounts an experiment where kids of various races were introduced to an African-American Santa. So what happened?

As Scher notes, due to the experiment, “Kids began to think critically about race.”

I’m all for encouraging kids to do just that. But Santa? Is nothing sacred? For better or worse, he has been portrayed for many, many years as looking a certain way. Isn’t life confusing enough? Should I go around telling little kids the Incredible Hulk was really blue — or that Fat Albert was Hispanic? (And if did that, wouldn’t people rightly hate me for it?)

Again, I’m willing to concede that Santa is an utterly commercialized fraud who arguably does more harm than good. But if someone else’s little kid believes in him, isn’t it possibly harmful to shatter this image — even for a noble end?

It very well may be that we, as a society, need to work on creating more diverse characters and heroes. I’m willing to believe that a black child growing up in a world where Superman and Barbie (and everything else) are portrayed as white might have some negative consequences. The solution to that, however, isn’t to pretend Superman was black, it’s to invent some kick-ass black characters going forward.

The bottom line is that we have reached a point where we have even politicized Santa.

I just interviewed Yuval Levin about his new book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. Levin’s premise (that we are still in the midst of this great debate) rings true here. Paine famously said: “We have it in our power, to begin the world anew…” — which is essentially what they’re trying to do to Santa (Burke would not have approved.)

Societies need shared beliefs and icons — things with a form of permanence. It is these shared cultural beliefs (not government) that bind us together. (Note: It matters little whether these things are true or fairy tales.) But the Jacobin tendency to chip away at, or mock, these shared icons and institutions undermines our shared beliefs. At some point, you just have a bunch of people living in a country together who share no common memory — who have nothing spiritual or mystic in common that they would willingly die for.

Now, I’m not saying the future of the Republic rests on whether or not kids think Santa was white. I am saying that this is just the latest example to “begin the world anew.” But some things out to left alone. As Jim Croce sang, “You don’t pull on Superman’s cape. You don’t spit in the wind. You don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger…” And, I would add, you don’t mess around with St. Nick.