The War Over Santa Claus

This year, jolly old St. Nicholas has been white, black, Jewish, and even a penguin. But what’s the real story?

Penguins dressed in Santa and Christmas tree costumes are paraded at Everland, South Korea's largest amusement park, on Dec. 18.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
Dec. 24, 2013, 4:13 a.m.

He may be ima­gin­ary, but Santa Claus is very real to many Amer­ic­ans. And this year, he be­came real enough to ex­per­i­ence a bit of an iden­tity crisis.

The de­bate over who Santa really is — or who he should be — began in earn­est early this month, when Aisha Har­ris, writ­ing for Slate, sug­ges­ted we aban­don the cur­rent vis­age and re­place it with a pen­guin to “spare mil­lions of non­white kids the in­sec­ur­ity and shame that I re­mem­ber from child­hood.”

Con­ser­vat­ive me­dia shot back. “For all the kids watch­ing at home, Santa just is white but this per­son is just ar­guing that maybe we should also have a black Santa,” Me­gyn Kelly told Fox view­ers. Then politi­cians jumped in. “Maybe, you know, he’s Jew­ish,” Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., joked on NPR’s Morn­ing Edi­tion. In the middle of all this, al­tern­at­ive-en­ergy com­pan­ies began push­ing for a slim Santa in a green coat who re­jects big con­sumer brands in fa­vor of gifts that give back.

But Santas who de­vi­ate from the norm already ex­ist. In parts of the coun­try with large minor­ity pop­u­la­tions, the Santas ad­orn­ing Christ­mas cards and greet­ing chil­dren at the mall are not white, “il­lus­trat­ing that in an in­creas­ingly di­verse United States, Santa takes on whatever col­or you ima­gine him to be,” the As­so­ci­ated Press wrote on Fri­day.

Still, even a change in coat col­or, just like a change in eth­ni­city or spe­cies, will im­me­di­ately see push-back. A red coat, a blush­ing white face — “these are very very tra­di­tion­al, icon­ic im­ages,” says Jenna Al­lard, dir­ect­or of op­er­a­tions at Pear En­ergy, which is pro­mot­ing a green-coat Claus through hol­i­day sales on wind or sol­ar elec­tri­city for house­holds. “Oc­ca­sion­ally, we kind of need to step back and think about the mean­ings be­hind them and what we want to save and what we don’t.”

So who is that man from the North Pole? The 21st-cen­tury Santa Claus is a blend of Sin­ter­k­laas, a cape-wear­ing, staff-tot­ing Dutch saint; Fath­er Christ­mas, a cheer­ful, long-bearded gen­tle­man from Brit­ish folk­lore; and St. Nich­olas, a gen­er­ous Greek bish­op from mod­ern-day Tur­key once per­se­cuted for his Chris­ti­an be­liefs.

However, Santa as most Amer­ic­ans know him — with rosy cheeks, a hearty ho-ho, and big belly — comes from a suc­cess­ful mar­ket­ing cam­paign barely a cen­tury old.

In the 1920s, the Coca-Cola Co. launched a series of shop­ping ads dur­ing Christ­mas­time fea­tur­ing Santa. He looked the way car­toon­ist Thomas Nast drew him for Harp­er’s Weekly in 1862: a small, elf-like fig­ure with a strict fa­cial ex­pres­sion.

In 1931, ad ex­ec­ut­ives work­ing with Coke wanted the cam­paign “to show a whole­some Santa who was both real­ist­ic and sym­bol­ic,” ac­cord­ing to the soda com­pany’s web­site. The il­lus­trat­or com­mis­sioned for the job, Had­don Sun­d­blom, used a friend, a re­tired sales­man, as a live mod­el, and drew in­spir­a­tion from Clem­ent Clark Moore’s 1822 poem “A Vis­it From St. Nich­olas” to cre­ate the “warm, friendly, pleas­antly plump and hu­man Santa” we see most of­ten today.

“People loved the Coca-Cola Santa im­ages and paid such close at­ten­tion to them that when any­thing changed, they sent let­ters to The Coca-Cola Com­pany,” reads a his­tory of the cam­paign.

The mod­ern-day im­age of Santa Claus pred­ates the people who have pos­tu­lated his “true” iden­tity this year. The war between those who say we should re­write his­tory to make it re­flect mod­ern sens­ib­il­it­ies and those who want to leave it un­touched is far from over. There seems to be only one real win­ner, though, and that’s Coke.

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