In diverse US, Santa Claus has many faces, races

AP Photo/John BazemoreIn this Tuesday

AP Photo/John BazemoreIn this Tuesday

In Atlanta, children of many races share their Christmas wish lists with a black Santa Claus.

In Houston, Santa dons a red zoot suit and dances to jazz as he hands out gifts in Mexican-American neighborhoods.

In Indian Country, Native American Santas add American Indian attire to their red snowsuits, visiting shops and community centers from the pueblos of New Mexico to the reservations on the Pacific Northwest.

Santa Claus may be popularly known as a white-bearded benefactor with Dutch-English origins, but multiethnic versions of Santa are making the rounds out there too — illustrating that in an increasingly diverse United States, Santa takes on whatever color you imagine him to be.

“Kids don't see color. They see a fat guy in a red suit giving toys,” said Dee Sinclair, 50, of Atlanta, who bills himself as the “Real Black Santa” and sports a very real, very white beard to prove it. He said in his 12 years of Santa-dom, he has posed with children and adults of all backgrounds during appearances at art centers, private parties and the occasional suburban Christmas tree lighting.

“The character to me is all about the spirit of Christmas,” Sinclair said. “If we leave Christmas to ourselves, we'd be all right.”

This holiday season, however, not all reactions to non-white Santas have been jolly.

At Indiana University in Bloomington earlier this month, a dormitory bulletin board posed the question, “Can Santa Claus be a black man?” in hopes of generating fruitful discussion about racial stereotypes. Instead, it generated outrage on social media because it also asked other questions that played to stereotypes, such as whether a black Santa would only visit the ghetto. The display, which a university spokesman described as well-intended but “misguided,” was taken down.

Last week, a high school teacher in Rio Rancho, N.M., was disciplined, and apologized, for telling a black student who dressed as Santa Claus, “Don't you know Santa Claus is white? Why are you wearing that?” The teacher has since been placed on paid administrative leave.

Also last week, Fox News host Megyn Kelly sparked a heated debate when she declared on air, “And by the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white,” during a panel discussion about a blogger's essay arguing that children of other races could feel alienated by constantly seeing Santa as white. Kelly later said her comments were motivated by humor, not “by any racial fear or loathing.”

That situation was promptly skewered by comics such as Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Kenan Thompson of NBC's Saturday Night Live, who, clad in a full Santa suit and beard, joked about Kelly's comments and quipped: “You heard of secret Santa? Well, here's a secret for you: I'm black as hell!”

Richard Reyes, 62, of Houston, who has portrayed “Pancho Claus” for 32 years, found this year's debate over Santa's race surprising. He has seen Santa transformed into many images for years, he said; In his version, Pancho Claus has a goatee, and accessorizes his zoot suit with sunglasses and a fedora.

“For these diverse times, it's important for children to see Santa in all these different forms,” Reyes said.

Andrew Chesnut, the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said depictions of Santa Claus as a white man came about mainly because he was a European import, a blend of the Dutch Sinterklaas and British folklore character Father Christmas, with elements of Saint Nicholas, a 4th-century Greek bishop in modern-day Turkey.

“But there is no reason he can't be portrayed as black or Latino,” Chesnut said. “We live in the most pluralist, diverse society on earth and this is going to happen.”

Chesnut compared Santa's evolution to that of La Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. That image came from a black Virgin Mary from Spain who transformed into an indigenous icon in the Americas to relate to the population, he said.

Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, a mall in the center of black Los Angeles, has operated a diversity Santa program for more than 10 years, where two Santas — one black, one Latino — share time taking photos with families. “It's been great,” said Rachel Erickson, the mall's marketing director. “The Santas have developed relationships with families and they come back year after year.”

“(Santa Claus) reflects whatever region he resides. He belongs to everyone,” said Xavier Garza, author of “Charro Claus and the Tejas Kid,” a bilingual children's book based on Santa Claus' “Mexican cousin” along the Texas-Mexico border. In Garza's book, Charro Claus refuses to let “rain, wind or border fences” prevent him from delivering toys to kids in the Texas Rio Grande Valley. Magic dust transforms an old mariachi outfit into a gold-and-silver sequined marvel and old burros into lucha libre-masked Flying Burritos to help Charro Claus deliver toys.

The short film and book “The Native American Night Before Christmas” by Gary Robinson has “Old Red Shirt,” or the American Indian Santa Claus, visiting children with a team of flying white buffalo to deliver commodities, fry bread and other goodies.

“As with Jesus, cultures adopt images that apply to them,” said Robinson, who lives on the Santa Ynez Reservation in California. “So it's totally appropriate that we do it with Santa.”

Dee Sinclairracesanta clausUS

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Demonstrators commemorated the life of George Floyd and others killed by police outside S.F. City Hall on June 1, 2020.<ins></ins>
Chauvin verdict: SF reacts after jury finds ex-officer guilty on all charges

San Franciscans were relieved Tuesday after jurors found a former Minneapolis police… Continue reading

San Francisco Unified School District Board member Faauuga Moliga, right, pictured with Superintendent Vincent Matthews on the first day back to classrooms, will be board vice president for the remander of the 2121 term. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Faauuga Moliga named as school board vice president to replace Alison Collins

The San Francisco school board on Tuesday selected board member Fauuga Moliga… Continue reading

Legislation by Supervisor Rafael Mandelman would require The City to add enough new safe camping sites, such as this one at 180 Jones St. in the Tenderloin, to accomodate everyone living on the street. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
City would create sites for hundreds of tents under new homeless shelter proposal

Advocates say funding better spent on permanent housing

An instructor at Sava Pool teaches children drowning prevention techniques. (Jordi Molina/ Special to the S.F. Examiner)
Indoor city pools reopen for lap swimming and safety classes

Two of San Francisco’s indoor city pools reopened Tuesday, marking another step… Continue reading

A construction worker rides on top of materials being transported out of the Twin Peaks Tunnel as work continues at West Portal Station on Thursday, August 16, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
SFMTA’s poor track record on capital projects risks losing ‘public trust’

Supervisors say cost overruns and delays could jeapordize future ballot revenue measures

Most Read