The Black Santa Claus at our local pharmacy

by Sachi Feris

I am Jewish. I did not grow up with a Christmas tree, nor did I have Christmas tree envy, or wish for Santa Claus. Though Chanukah is often considered a “Hallmark holiday,” I have always loved watching the Chanukah candles until they go out, and singing the Chanukah prayer.

My husband is from Argentina and is an atheist, something I confirmed on our second date. Christmas is the only holiday he “observes,” opening presents on Noche Buena (December 24th) as is tradition in Argentina.

This year, inspired by a (White) friend whose children believe in Santa Claus (Papá Noel as my daughter calls him), my husband was enthused to make his only holiday (as opposed to the multiple Jewish holidays I celebrate) by making Papa Noel into a game with our four-and-a-half-year-old daughter.

I am not exactly thrilled. In part, because Santa was not part of my childhood. In part, as a result of a guest blog post called “White lies we tell our children” that used Santa Claus as an example. And because Santa is a White male portrayed in winter clothes, even when traveling to parts of the globe where heat reigns all year round (and where children who have brown skin live).

I read an article about the origins of the real Saint Nicholas the other day that intrigued me. The real Saint Nick was born on the southern coast of Turkey and an ancient Muur of Europe—with brown skin. (Other articles on the history of Santa Claus corroborate this history—but ignore Saint Nick’s non-Whiteness.)

I mentioned this to my daughter and husband the other day when he was orchestrating a letter-writing to Papa Noel asking for “footed pajamas” just like the ones her 15-month-old baby brother uses:

“You know, the real Saint Nicholas would have had brown skin based on where he was born,” I told them. “But all the Santa Claus’ I see are always White. Doesn’t seem fair, does it?”

“Do you think Papá Noel is real, Mamma?” my daughter asked me the other day.

“Talk to your papi about Papá Noel,” I responded. “I am Jewish and I didn’t believe in Santa Claus when I was little.”

In a moment where our president-elect is threatening a Muslim registry, it also seems rather disgusting to reinforce an image of a White man who gives presents, only to those who are “good,” and by default Santa Claus reinforces that only Christians are “good.” (See related post on the problem with the good/bad dichotomy.)

I did “believe” in the tooth fairy as a child, but somehow Santa Claus does not feel like a harmless lie to me.

Then I visited our local pharmacy this afternoon with my 15-month-old.

“Look! I told him! A Santa with brown skin!” I told my son in Spanish. The Santa was big and his head bopped up and down.

Later that day, I told my daughter and husband what we had discovered…

“We can go see him tomorrow,” I promised by daughter.

The next day, we made it our morning “activity” to walk to the pharmacy, where the Santa with brown skin bopped his head at us in greeting while we stood there a few minutes and chatted:

“But the real Papá Noel is has White skin,” my daughter insisted.

“No,” I argued. “The real Papá Noel is the one from history and he would have had brown skin! I wonder why that happened,” I wondered out loud. “It’s not the only time in history that someone who had brown skin ended up being portrayed as White. It’s not very fair, is it?”

Then my daughter commented on Papá Noel’s glasses, saying, “…and the real Papá Noel doesn’t wear glasses.”

“Well, Papá Noel is supposed to be an old guy, and a lot of people who are older do have to wear glasses so they can read.”

My daughter confirmed that her two grandfathers, both with white beards, wore glasses. We then began to leave the store, and my daughter continued to wonder whether Papá Noel would be bringing her footed pajamas on Christmas morning.

If there is going to be a Papá Noel in my daughter’s life, he might as well help her consider (and complicate) how history represents (and misrepresents) people, and whitewashes the contributions that people of color have always made to the world.

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Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and individual consultations on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn. Sachi identifies as White and is a mother to a four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son.