Last night on Megyn Kelly’s Fox News show, a panel discussed a Slate essay by Aisha Harris, “Santa Claus Should Not Be a White Man Anymore.” The piece had argued that, so as not to exclude kids of different colors who celebrate Christmas, Santa should be portrayed not as a white guy–or a black or brown guy–but as a penguin.
Fox, already trip-wired for any cultural Wars on Christmas, seized on this, and Kelly took a moment to address any children in the audience: “When I saw this headline, I kind of laughed and I said, ‘Oh this is so ridiculous, yet another person saying that it’s racist to have a white Santa.’ And by the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white… Santa just is what he is.”
Santa just is what he is. OK, here’s the part where I need to take the argument seriously for a moment. That argument, such as it is, is that Santa Claus is based on a historical figure, Saint Nicholas. True: Nikolaos of Myra was a 4th-century Greek bishop in modern-day Turkey, and according to reconstructions of modern forensic scientists using skull remains, looked something like this–not exactly the jolly North European bowl o’ jelly who has ho-ho-ho’ed across popular culture since appearing in early 20th-century Coca-Cola ads.
All that said! 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.)
But I should cut Kelly a little slack here. For one thing, she does express some empathy for Harris and the experience of growing up black and seeing only white Santas. And I’m sure she believed she was only acting in the interest of the kids–kids who were watching Fox News on primetime TV, but kids nonetheless.
And if there’s one thing we know about Fox News, it’s that it’s always deeply respectful of its audience’s comforting fictional beliefs.