The origins of Black Santa Claus

Hugo Fajardo, Intersections Editor

Adelaide Basco | Art Director

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In 2018, children from around the world are still taught about the most popular holiday mascot in history: Santa Claus. The large, bearded and jolly figure continues to captivate the hearts of children across continents. Young people admire Santa Claus and see him as the ultimate example of giving back to those who deserve it those who made the “nice list.” When people picture Santa Claus in their minds, however, there are often subconscious notions of what Santa looks like, including his skin color.

In 2016, retired U.S. Army Captain Larry Jefferson set foot into the Mall of America, the largest shopping mall in the U.S., located in Bloomington, Minnesota. Jefferson wore a red suit and a Santa hat and sat down in his throne, taking pictures with hundreds of children every day. Jefferson was the first black man in the mall’s history to do this.

The Mall generally received positive feedback about employing its first black Santa Claus. Many parents praised the decision, citing the value for their children to see Santa Claus as a person of the same skin color as them.

The Mall’s intention, however, was not entirely met with positivity. The Minneapolis Star Tribune’s coverage of the act received many racist and derogatory comments on its online article. Seeing a black Santa Claus is nothing new, as dolls and figures of the mascot of color have been sold for decades.

This prompts the question: what is the origin of the black Santa Claus?

The legend of Santa Claus is very loosely based on the real life person, Saint Nicholas. St. Nicholas lived around the fourth century in what is now present-day Turkey. This means that St. Nicholas was, in fact, not white.

In the early 20th century, there were accounts of black men dressing up as Santa, usually being met with racial slurs and insults. Even President Woodrow Wilson mocked and looked down upon a black Santa Claus that visited his Christmas dinner.

Beginning in the 1950s, black Santas started to be seen more frequently in inner-city shopping malls around the U.S. As white Americans started mass-migrating to suburban areas, malls and department stores in urban areas began to market to their predominantly black shoppers.

In the 1960s, black Santa Claus became a symbol in the civil rights movement as a form of black empowerment. Many activists called out the portrayal of Santa as a white man as an example of whitewashing even childrens’ stories.

More and more black Santas got hired to work in malls and department stores nationwide the following decade. Among them was the famous Macy’s flagship store in Manhattan. Thus, black Santa Claus rose to mainstream popularity and became what it is today.

Though Santa Claus is a fictional character, there is not a fixed mold that determines what skin color he is. Rather, it should depend on how the people that love him perceive him. After all, Santa delivers presents to good-hearted children from all over the world, regardless of race, ethnicity or nationality. A black boy should be able to think and see Santa Claus, a caring and joyful person, as someone that looks like him. No race or skin color should be able to universally claim Santa Claus as their own.

Jefferson hopes that his work, and black Santa Claus as a long-running symbol, inspires other people to become Asian Santas, or Latino Santas, or Middle-Eastern Santas and more.

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