CREDIT: Coca-Cola Art
Much of Megyn Kelly’s mainstream appeal to viewers who wouldn’t normally praise an employee of Fox News is the idea that she’s not afraid to stand up to stupid memes or willful denials of the facts, whether she’s smacking down Dr. Keith Ablow’s fearmongering about transgender people or bowing to the evidence and calling Ohio for Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election. But last night, she provided a reminder of why she’s a good fit for the network that employs her.
In response to a piece by Aisha Harris in Slate that was half a joking suggestion that Santa Claus be replaced by a cheerful penguin, and half a heartfelt reflection on the difficulties of not seeing any part of yourself in an omnipresent cultural symbol, Kelly decided to dig in on an odd priority: declaring that Santa Claus has always been an old white guy, and an old white guy he must remain. “Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change,” she declared confidently. “I mean, Jesus was a white man, too. He was a historical figure. That’s verifiable fact, as is Santa. I just want the kids watching to know that. But my point is, how do you just revise it in the middle of the legacy of the story, and change Santa from white to black.”
Where to begin? We could start with the fact that there isn’t actually a good historical case for either Jesus or Santa Claus’ whiteness, at least as Kelly seems to conceive of it. Jesus’ family was from Galilee, which is the Northern part of the modern state of Israel. That’s a set of origins that doesn’t exactly suggest that Jesus was born with the milky-white skin tone he’s been given by so many artists since his life and death. But if Kelly wants to claim him as white, that says something about the extent to which Jews, who have historically been considered ethnically distinct from people of European origins (we’ll save the distinctions between Ashkenazim and Sephardim for History Of Ethnicity 200), have been assimilated into the constructed collective identity known as whiteness.
Similarly, Saint Nicholas, the Christian saint who is the earliest figure in the Santa Claus myth, was born in the city of Patara, now known as Arsinoe, in Turkey. He’s sometimes referred to as a Greek, because Turkey was under Greek rule at the time of his birth, but the shifting boundaries of empires don’t change the fact that Saint Nicholas’ skin tone might well have such that it would have gotten him stopped and frisked while trying to enter homes in certain neighborhoods in New York City late at night.
That said, Santa Claus is frequently depicted as a white guy today precisely because of what Kelly said we absolutely must not do: “revise it in the middle of the legacy of the story.” As part of the long process of formalizing a celebration of the birth of Christ–which includes shifting the purported date of Jesus’ arrival in the world to midwinter to coopt pagan observances and then suppressing said observances–Saint Nicholas gets mashed up with other figures. These include Sinterklass, who may be a variation of the Norse god Odin, and who’s part of holiday observances in places as varied as the Netherlands and Greece. Father Christmas, the British character, has analogues in South America, most European countries, and the Caucuses. And this isn’t even including characters like Zwarte Piet, who’s part of Christmas folklore in Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium, who is, wait for it, of African origin. In the United States, many people and organizations have contributed to our modern conception of Santa Claus’ physical appearance, including the the political cartoonist and muckracker Thomas Nast, the White Rock Beverage company which used him to sell mineral water, and Haddon Sundblom, who drew Santa Claus for Coca-Cola’s famous 1930s advertising campaign.
The Santa Claus that Kelly wants so badly to preserve is so powerful precisely because he’s an amalgam of traditions, a concept flexible enough to incorporate and accommodate the emotional, spiritual, and frankly material needs of people of many cultures and organizations. There is no stable and unchanging tradition of Santa Claus available to be defended.
But I’m not even sure that’s the most telling part of Kelly’s decision to plant a flag squarely in Santa’s snowy beard. “Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change,” she says of Harris’ post, after a number of her guests suggested that they’d been swayed by Harris’ explanation of wanting to see herself reflected in the holidays. That’s a kind of thinking that’s constantly invoked by people who don’t want to have to take responsibility for causing harm or even hurt feelings to others, because it might require them to make an effort or feel some discomfort themselves. People who make those arguments frequently do, as Kelly has here, invoke the idea that tradition must trump any sort of hurt feelings–this has been Dan Snyder’s go-to defense of continuing to call his football team an epithet.
But the truth is, being kind to other people and considerate of their bruised feelings doesn’t actually cost anyone very much. As Charles Krauthammer put it in his defense of changing the name of Washington’s football team, analogizing it to his decision to stop using the term “gyp” when asked to do so, “I stopped using it. It’s very easy to do. It has nothing to do with the sensitivities of a mass of people. It has to do with simple, elementary respect. You don’t use that word if you can avoid it.” If you cannot bestir yourself to do that small kindness and courtesy to your fellow people, that speaks volumes about your character.
And Kelly’s dismissal of other people’s comfort raises the question of whether she’s concealing her own. Beyond tradition, why could it possibly be this important to someone that Santa Claus be white? Is it as a career subsidy to Tim Allen, in the hopes that we’ll get another Santa Claus movie? It is fondness for advertising history and the work of Thomas Nast?
Or is it that Santa Claus is a figure who defies certain rules we teach our children? He’s a stranger who’s allowed to enter our houses without an explicit invitation, and to do so when we’re asleep and vulnerable. In setting out milk and cookies, we’re even giving him permission to stay a while. At a time when a lot of children are taught to be suspicious of strangers, especially men, and who aren’t supposed to let people who aren’t blood family, close family friends, or educators touch them, that rule is suspended for Santa Claus. Children are encouraged to sit on Santa’s lap and confide in him. That special exemption is why we find stories about mall Santas who are sexual offenders a particular betrayal of our trust. If you’re freaked out by the prospect of a non-white Santa Claus, it’s probably worth asking yourself if some of that objection comes from the fact that you might be less comfortable making these exceptions for a man of color.
That lack of charity isn’t exactly shocking. Many of the less savory parts of Kelly’s career involve stoking fears against black men, whether she’s spinning conspiracy theories about the New Black Panther Party’s influence on elections or giving airtime to a source who suggests avoiding groups of young black men as part of the scare-mongering coverage of the so-called “knockout game.”
It’s very nice, and very convenient, to have the world set up so you’re rarely asked to identify with or admire people who don’t look like you. But the very reason white folks cling to the privilege of having whiteness as a default is an argument for why we should extend our fellow citizens the same courtesy. It’s nice to see yourself reflected in media and tradition. It’s a relief. There’s absolutely no good reason, historical or otherwise, that white people should have a monopoly on that experience or that safe harbor. Christmas isn’t the only occasion on which that should be the case. But you have to be a real Grinch to suggest that it isn’t a perfectly fine time of the year to start.