I never asked my parents why Santa Claus was white, but in the small Maryland town where I grew up in the 1960s, he always was -- on TV, on billboards, in classroom illustrations and in the local five-and-dime stores. Everything about Christmas was white -- Jesus, Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, the wise men -- everything, including the pictures of Santa that colored families, mine included, displayed in our homes.
The only African-American on most families' walls was Martin Luther King Jr., and he didn't achieve living room visibility until after his assassination in 1968. Even then, his 8-by-10 photo shared a special frame with images of Jesus and President Kennedy.
At Christmas, most colored kids saw Santa Claus as these icons' equal, and it certainly struck me as heroic that he'd wriggle down our chimney to leave me toys. Setting out cookies and milk for a man who worked so hard was the least my family could do.
Every year, a few days before Christmas, our town sponsored a free movie day. Ushers led my white friends into the main part of the theater, while we coloreds were escorted into an overcrowded balcony. The biggest thrill came when the movie was over and we got to sit on Santa's lap, as photographers snapped Polaroids and elves handed us each a box of candy and a big, bright orange.
Santa gave everyone equal time to discuss their wish lists, but the white children were always first in line. Still, a starry-eyed girl of 7 didn't care about the wait, or the color of Santa's skin -- or that none of us colored families had chimneys. I believed in Santa.
I was 24 years old when I first saw a Black Santa Claus, while walking through an Atlanta mall. I couldn't believe my eyes! Here was a round, jolly-looking fellow in a red suit.
But he didn't have rosy cheeks. I was immobile. As I stared at the white-bearded Black man, I thought back to my childhood and realized that the myth of Santa Claus was even more of a fabrication in colored neighborhoods.
This man we idolized should have looked more like me. Or, rather, like my father. Because that's who he had been all along.
Originally published in Los Angeles Times, At Last, A Santa Whose Cheeks Aren't Rosy, Sunday, December 25, 2005.