Last year’s media war fought over the skin color of Santa gave us much to think about regarding racial agendas, cultural customs, and the relationship between popular tradition and concrete history. Some choose to think of Santa as being white, some choose to think of him as being black, and some choose to think of him as a figment of the imagination. With last year’s debates over the ethnicity of Santa Claus now behind us, it seems we are now faced with a new issue. Like a mad scientist trying to piece together some sort of a hybrid creature capable of appealing to everyone, our politically correct culture is on the brink of bringing to life a new monster: the non-ethnic Santa.
While doing some Advent shopping my wife and I noticed something strange about all of the Santa Claus displays at the popular department store we were visiting: the face of Santa Claus was never visible. In each display Santa was either turned the other way, ducking down unloading presents from his bag, or his face was hidden by a purposefully placed snowball, elf, or stocking. In one display, St. Nicholas had suffered the unfortunate accident of toppling head over heels into the back of his sleigh, leaving his entire upper half hidden and exposing only his famous red pants and black boots to the critical gaze of holiday shoppers. Were all of these advertising choices merely coincidental? Possibly, though unlikely.
What seems more likely is that this particular store, already known for its hesitance to advertise this holiday in the radical way of actually using the name of Christ, is purposefully trying to sidestep the race question. By not recognizing ethnic characteristics of Santa Claus they, and many, might assume they can simply garner the popular sentiment surrounding this traditional figure while also satisfying the demands of political correctness. This is impossible, however, because Santa, like all the characters who play a role in our religious and cultural traditions, are necessarily real, in both historical and contemporary senses.
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I do not have much of a problem with a black Santa, a white Santa, or any other color of Santa. We know that St. Nicholas, the genesis of all the various modern manifestations of the Santa Claus tradition, was a real person, from a real place, and with a real face. His historical face did not look like the face of a person of African descent, nor did it probably look like the face of a person of northern European descent. Refashioning the images of Saints and Biblical characters is a common artistic expression, and can be used to highlight the fact that God truly enters into the human experience of all his people; at all times and places. Saints too have the power to connect with us in real, living ways because they are really alive in heaven, interceding for us in their communion with God, who is not God of the dead, but of the living (Mt 22:32).
To depict them in particular ways which may differ from their historical selves is not necessarily a mistake in history, nor is it necessarily a social or political statement. There can be room for an enculturated depiction of Santa Claus in Catholic tradition just as there is room for the Calling of St. Matthew painting, and to accuse someone who depicts Santa as darker or lighter than most natives of Turkey of not knowing what St. Nicholas really looked like would be like accusing Caravaggio of thinking Matthew and his companions would really have been wearing sixth century Italian garb.
In the chapel of our retreat house here in Wichita, we have a beautiful painting of the Annunciation, in which the artist depicts Mary in a very subtle, yet powerful, contemporary context. The painting is done in a classical style, and the appearance of Mary herself is no different than you would expect to find her in traditional Catholic art. Yet Gabriel finds her in a very modern setting; reading a book, looking out of a glass window, even with a painting of Adam and Eve on the wall of her house; all things that would not have existed in first century Nazareth. It has never struck me as being untraditional or inaccurate.
It reminds us that while the Annunciation was a singular event in history, we, like Mary, are all called to make the Word incarnate in our own lives, in response to God’s personal call to each of us. The Blessed Virgin herself has taken on cultural characteristics in apparitions, such as her Aztec features in the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Mary was a person of specific cultural characteristics in history, but can appeal to us by assuming our own characteristics. God himself was Incarnate in history, and is incarnate now in all of the baptized who can say, with St. Paul, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20).
Choosing to portray Santa Claus as faceless and unrecognizable removes him from any cultural tradition. Choosing to see him as a part of our particular ethnic group, or in his own particular ethnic group, can both be valid options when properly understood and intentioned. St. Nicholas, like other popular devotional figures, both was a real person in history and is a person capable of entering into our contemporary lives in all of their diversity. But the point is he has to be real, a part of some culture, in order to be meaningful. A Santa Claus sans-ethnicity and sans-culture is a symptom of a modern society losing touch with reality: seeking to reinvent itself apart from history and tradition, therefore becoming something utterly superficial and unreal or, more precisely, nothing at all. As we make our Christmas lists, let us all make sure to include the one request that Santa Claus is sure to fulfill: St. Nicholas, pray for us.