“Santa Claus is a Black Man”: Race and the Imaginary

“Santa Claus is a Black man; Santa Claus is a Black man
And he’s handsome like my daddy, too
Santa Claus is a Black man; Santa Claus is a Black man
And I found out; that’s why I’m telling you.”

This is the chorus of a song that I grew up listening to during Christmastime as a child. “Santa Claus is a Black man” written by producer Teddy Vann’s in 1973 is his version of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” Our family didn’t have a tape deck or a record player so the local radio station served as our disc jockey.  I don’t remember the radio station but it seemed to play the same collection of songs every year. This one struck me as strange when I initially began to think about race and the people, places and things that have informed my racial identity. In this case, this song served as a lyrical protest of an African American against the image of whiteness and consequently, goodness in his neighborhood, dressed as a red suited savior and judge with a list of those who were naughty and nice. In order for Christmas to be his own, Santa Claus would need to look like him. Sound familiar?

Old Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas or simply Santa Claus (first used in 1773), the man with rosy cheeks, a workforce of elves and a furry fleet of reindeer was inspired by a fourth century Christian, Saint Nicholas of Myra. A bishop, he wore a long beard and was known for his generosity to the poor. Since then, Santa Claus has reached mythical proportions and become immortal through our storytelling. But, through our words, we have also remade him in our own image.

The sociolinguistic construct of race causes us to compete on every level. We must be in the forefront, most visible on seemingly every occasion and Christmas is no exception. We have not learned as Americans how to behave as family members, to wait our turn, to support our kindred in their personal successes. Like immature children, all of society’s attention must be on us despite the fact that there are numerous cultures that make up the United States of America. We still behave as if we are the only child, the only creation of God.

The rivalry of the races is a fight based in both the real and imaginary worlds. There is no space that is off limits but all must claim to be on one side or the other– if not first then the best. It is a battle for domination of thought, rule and interpretation. So, strong is this urge that we fight for the rights to fictive characters. We want Santa Claus to belong to us and no one else. The fact that we all serve as Santa in our homes and communities is not the point. Giving is not the point but who gives the  most, who is privileged to give and is the source of all good gifts.

And this is the deception. In our attempt to be the ultimate giver of gifts, we compete with God or at least attempt to become one. Santa Claus may be imaginary but our idolatrous strivings because of race is not. Santa Claus is not a black/white/red/yellow/brown/beige man. He is a fictive creation, inspired by St. Nicholas of Myra who died thousands of years ago. Stop singing the song!

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