Black Santa: can anyone be Father Christmas?
I have never had the privilege of playing Santa at a kids’ Christmas party. Maybe I’m still too young or my beard is not yet up to Saint Nick standards. I have put away a fair share of mince pies, cookies and milk in my time and still have the evidence to show it, such that I’m pretty sure that I could be an outstanding Santa. I could just see the horror on my kids’ faces as I dressed up in red and “ho-ho-hoed” around their school, being sure to take any opportunity to spread my humour like the flu at winter. Just that image encourages me to pursue a Santa gig more than ever. What’s that? You want to hear some of my Christmas jokes? Ha, so glad you asked!
“Did you hear about the time when Santa appeared on the catwalk? …. He ‘sleighed’ it!”
“What do you call a person who ONLY exercises in December? …. A ‘Christmas Sweater’.”
It is Christmas Eve and a child leaps from their bed in excitement and bursts into their parents’ room: “Mum! Did you hear that pattering on the roof just now? Do you think it was Santa?” Mum wakes up slowly, looks at the clock and responds, “no, it was just the ‘rain dear’, now go back to bed.”
Trust me, I could go on spreading that Christmas joy for well into the new year. However, I didn’t set out to dedicate this post to humour but want to bring up a more ticklish topic, that of seasonal representation and the nuanced issue of the black Santa. The predominant, commercial image of Christmas is lovely, warm white faces sipping wine by a fire, as the snow falls gently on a backdrop of evergreens. At midnight, the magic happens and Santa, a robust, rosy-cheeked elderly man, slides down chimneys and stealthily leaves gifts underneath trees of nordic origin. The fortunate few get a glimpse of the jolly gentleman at work, and he winks at them with a starry twinkle. The truth is, kids love Santa more than their own dad! Some even wish that he would take them back to the North Pole and put them to work with the elves. I can’t even get my kids to clean their rooms and stack the dishwasher in a warm house without much persuasion, so I can’t imagine them stacking a sleigh and cleaning up after reindeer in -21 degrees. The image of a white, jolly Father Christmas reinforces an association of love, generosity, joy and everything beautiful about the season with a particular race and culture. Other cultures just do not have the same resources and influence to create this scale of marketing and promote fair representation. Advertising promotes what they believe will sell and consumers buy what is sold.
This may seem a trivial thing and maybe you feel inclined to stop reading this article because I’ve brought up something so annoyingly petty. However, I’m not saying this with a grudging mindset or intent on stirring up what might be deemed as a non-issue that is probably being sorted over time. I’m just ensuring that we recognise that there is a population of people who might feel excluded from the festivities. The notion of a black Santa is either a novelty or a niche taste. Even black children are known to question the authenticity and Santa-credentials of a black person dressed in the festive red attire.
It’s a nice sentiment, but the reality is that black Santas are pretty hard to find. When the Mall of America in Minnesota enlisted a black Santa this year, he was popular with children but his presence prompted an unpleasant racial backlash online. [Seeing Santa in Black and White, Sa’idya Shabazz, NY Times Dec. 2016]
Even though Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ Jesus, the contemporary face and personality of Christmas is Santa Claus a.k.a. Saint Nick, Chris Pringle or Nicholaus. Santa is even referred to as “Father Christmas” or the “Spirit of Christmas”. However, the image of Santa we know and love today is the result of very successful advertising by Coca-Cola back in the 1930s. Growing up in Barbados where there is no winter, snow and a very small population of white people, we still embraced the image of Santa and Christmas that did not represent 98% of our population and polar opposite to our climate. We would send Christmas cards from Barbados with lovely messages and people standing in snow singing carols. I kid you not! There is of course the standard Santa in swim trunks at the beach on Christmas day relaxing after his mental Christmas Eve shift.
The true cultural celebration of Christmas in Barbados occurs in homes, churches and in the city centre. The open doors, music, singing and aromas around Christmas time are spectacular and joyous. If you are in Barbados on Christmas day, make sure you get down to Queens Park in the morning and catch a glimpse of people in their finest, many who have been to church before sunrise to welcome the glorious morn. You are sure to spot men dressed in suits with canes strutting through the park together, keeping up a tradition established by a local icon the late King Dyal, picture on the right below.
If you celebrate Christmas as a family, do not hesitate to be the spirit of Christmas for your kids. Being Santa and representing the “spirit of Christmas” to children is not limited to a colour or culture. In the words of Larry Jefferson, who was the first black Santa at the Mall of America in Minnesota, USA:
“Kids don’t see colour. What they see most of the time is this red suit and candy” (Larry Jefferson, first black Santa at Mall of America, Minnesota, 2016)
This is so true. We often get caught up in the colour debates about Santa and have to be cautious that we are not superimposing division yet know that it is equally important to encourage representation. With this in mind I wrote a lighthearted book for early years called “Daddy! You cannot play Santa Claus” with the following synopsis:
At a school’s upcoming Christmas Fair, one eager dad really wants to play Santa Claus but has overlooked one critical detail. Hint: the dad is originally from Barbados and the school is set in the northern regions of the United Kingdom. His kids try to tell him, “Daddy! You cannot play Santa Claus” but he refuses to listen.
It is not a true story but please enjoy this as you read it with your kids, as you explore discover why this dad’s kids tell him that he can’t play Santa, in spite of his endless efforts to convince them. Althought I would definitely wear the dapper red suit, I assure you, this is not about me.
Also available on Amazon Kindle: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Daddy-cannot-play-Santa-Claus-ebook/dp/B07M9D8BXT (UK) and https://www.amazon.com/Daddy-cannot-play-Santa-Claus-ebook/dp/B07M9D8BXT (US)
Written by Phil Robinson