Black America: Believe It or Not, the ‘Real’ Santa Wasn’t White (Not Even Close)
The Christmas season is almost upon us, and that means that millions of kids around the world will soon be sending letters to Santa Claus, asking for gifts and getting ready to leave out a plate of cookies on Christmas Eve.
But what comes to mind when you think of Santa Claus? Probably a fat white man with pink cheeks and a white beard, right? It’s the image we see plastered everywhere this time of year, from greeting cards and Coca-Cola ads to socks and sweaters.
In fact, the idea of a white Santa Claus is so engrained into the American mindset that when the Mall of America in Minneapolis hired its first Black Santa in 2016, articles were overrun with racist comments and even a call to boycott the mall.
This ridiculousness is the type of think Black Americans have come to expect. But for all the people crying out that Santa Claus is a “white character,” history tells us a different story …
Time for a truth bomb, Black America: the real, original Santa Claus wasn’t white at all.
Who Was the Original Santa Claus?
The modern-day character of Santa Claus is based on a real-life historical figure known as Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas was born in Turkey during the 3rd century to a wealthy Christian family. There are several legends surrounding Saint Nicholas, including calming a storm, resurrecting children who had been murdered by a butcher and saving soldiers who had been wrongfully accused and sentenced to death.
The most famous stories about Saint Nicholas, though, focus on his generosity.
One story states that Saint Nicholas dropped a bag of gold through the window of a destitute father with three daughters. The money saved the daughters from becoming prostitutes and enabled the father to pay their wedding dowries so they could live happy, honorable lives. According to legend, the bag of gold actually fell into a stocking drying above the fireplace — leading to Christmas stockings.
There are several other stories about Saint Nicholas and his generosity, but they generally include him giving gifts in secret, especially to children and the poor. Saint Nicholas was a humble man who didn’t want to be praised for his actions, but word got out about his giving, which is part of what led him to be recognized as a Saint.
So What Race Was Saint Nicholas?
While Saint Nicholas’s actual race isn’t really important to the story of who he was and what he did, there is plenty of historical evidence to show he wasn’t a white man — and he wasn’t always depicted that way, either.
A Russian icon from the 18th century shows Saint Nicholas with dark skin. A cathedral in Bari, Italy, that is believed to hold his remains, depicts Saint Nicholas as a dark-skinned, Middle Eastern-looking man in art and icons. While there are a lot of paintings depicting Saint Nicholas as a white man, this has more to do with the painters of the time wanting to visualize him as someone who looked like them.
And for the people who try to argue that Saint Nicholas was actually a white man, Harvard Professor Laura Nasrallah has explained, “Saint Nicholas is born into a family that probably considered itself to be ethnically Greek but in an area of the world that we now call Turkey. Historically, you can’t import a category like ‘white’ into fourth century Asia minor.”
Comedian John Stewart took things even further after a Fox News controversy over Santa Claus’s race, saying that the real-life Saint Nicholas probably would have been put on the United States’ “no fly” list because of his Middle Eastern appearance.
Nasrallah also went on to note that while the modern Santa Claus is to a large extent based on this historical figure, he isn’t real. After all, the real Saint Nicholas didn’t have flying reindeer or live at the North Pole. So people should be free to depict Santa however they want — including as a Black man.
How Did We Get Modern Santa?
Saint Nicholas was the main source of inspiration for Santa Claus, but he had little in common with the fat, jolly man in a red suit we see so often today. The modern image of white Santa Claus owes a lot to the poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” which popularized the idea of St. Nick in the United States, as well as Coca-Cola’s advertising campaigns from the 1930s.
Then, of course, there was St. Nicholas’s popularity in other European countries. In predominantly white countries, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that the main gift giver of Christmas was going to end up being depicted as white.
Still, Black men did start dressing up as Santa in the early 20th century. Despite facing racial slurs and insults (even, reportedly from President Woodrow Wilson), Black Santas became more widespread in city shopping areas in the 1950s, and even became viewed as a symbol of black empowerment.
Obviously, there is still racism that works against the idea of a Black Santa in 2020, but at the end of the day, Santa Claus is a fictional character. Saint Nicholas was a real man who, based on historical evidence, was not white. However, his legacy of generosity is something that shouldn’t be restricted to a single race or nationality.
Celebrate Christmas With Black Santa!
The image of a Black Santa Claus may have been swept under the rug for many years, but it doesn’t have to be that way anymore. We’re not just seeing more Black Santas in shopping malls. We’re finally getting more products and imagery showing a Black Santa — including right here at Trendy Lake.Our Black Santa Claus socks are the perfect way to ring in the holiday season, with festive colors and a Santa who is undeniably black. We even have Black Santa socks with Black Lives Matter imagery, so you can show your commitment to today’s social causes. Time to make your holiday season merry and bright — and Black.