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
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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