Last week Fox News' Megyn Kelly created a stir by claiming, "Santa just is white," then following up by ascribing whiteness to the historical figures of both Jesus and Santa. The resulting storm included accusations that Kelly is a racist, along with Kelly's own non-apology: she acknowledges that Jesus' whiteness or otherwise is "far from settled," but blames her critics for failing to appreciate her humor.
Lots of folks have piled on in mocking Kelly, but I think we're missing two more important points. Yes, the concepts of a white Jesus and a white Santa are wrong on so many levels. "Whiteness" in a modern sense would have held no meaning in Roman Galilee, where Jesus lived, nor in Lycia, the home assigned to Saint Nicolas. Because of the ethnic fluidity of first century Judaism, Jesus' skin may have been light or dark, his nose flat or thin, his hair nappy or straight. We just don't know. As for Saint Nicolas, we know very little about him -- even to the point where his very existence is less than obvious. One of Kelly's guests called Nicolaus "Greek," but "Greek" didn't mean then what it means now. Tradition locates Nicolas in what we'd call northern Turkey today. He was Greek because he was Greek-speaking. Who knows what Nicolaus would have looked like, either? So Kelly's claims were nonsense.
Let's not waste time saying Megyn Kelly was wrong historically. Let's reflect on how wrong she was spiritually.
Our Jesus, Ourselves
The first important point begins with the recognition that, historically speaking, most cultures have portrayed Jesus and the saints in their own image. This is no new phenomenon. Ethiopia represents one of the church's most ancient national expressions. We're hardly surprised that Ethiopian iconography portrays a relatively dark-skinned Jesus. No less surprising is the tan skin of Saint Nicolas in Eastern iconography. Whether we should call his representation "white" is a matter for judgment.
Things grow more serious when one culture claims -- over against others -- that its portrayal of Jesus is somehow more valid than theirs. It's no surprise that in the United States, where white people have historically determined how Jesus looks in everything from portraits to stained glass windows to children's books, someone might assume that "Jesus was a white man, too."
At stake here are cultural politics. Kelly was responding to a column by Aisha Harris, who is African American. Harris observed that the pervasive depiction of a white Santa poorly serves "all the children he delights each Christmas." Harris' childhood home included black images of Santa. Now Harris suggests eliminating racially specific Santas altogether: why not a penguin?
I'm not sure I like the penguin idea, but Kelly's reaction to Harris reveals the deeper problem. It's okay for Santa to be white. Even if Santa's whiteness is "uncomfortable" for some children, Kelly asserts, that doesn't mean Santa needs to change.
So the question. What would happen if we went to the mall and encountered a black Santa? Santa with a Hispanic accent? Somebody needs to run this experiment. Here's guessing some white families would avoid black Santa, maybe look elsewhere for their annual Santa portraits. We'd see white parents "explaining" Hispanic Santa to their children -- "He doesn't sound like Santa!" I wonder if we should expect formal complaints. Or worse.
Santa isn't Jesus, but we're talking about the same problem. It's not that white people have a white Santa, however silly that looks in historical perspective. The problem occurs if we enforce a white Santa on everyone else -- and in Kelly's case, complain when everyone else isn't compliant. I don't know Megyn Kelly, and I don't know her heart, but if enforcing a white Santa, or a white Jesus, is important to us, something has gone very, very wrong.
Weaponizing Jesus, Weaponizing Christmas
A second point involves what Megyn Kelly embodied in her defense of white Santa. Kelly makes, I'm sure, a fabulous living by manufacturing outrage. The Fox News audience is not only more conservative than the general population, it's also older and whiter. Fox News caters to this audience by promoting culturally divisive storylines like their famous "War on Christmas." (Make no mistake, liberals have their own outrage media as well.)
So what was Megyn Kelly doing in her rebuttal of Aisha Harris? She was stirring up animosity among older white people that someone would dare challenge white Santa. No other explanation for her on-air takedown of Aisha Harris satisfies the intellect. Kelly even went a step farther: she threw Jesus into the mix. Let's not touch white Jesus.
Historical evidence or not, I'm concerned that some white people have an interest in keeping Jesus (or Santa) white. That's my first concern. But my second concern is just as grave. Where have we come when we weaponize Santa, or Jesus, for use in the culture wars? Ironically, those who would claim to defend Jesus are precisely the ones most likely to cheapen him, forging petty weapons from a revered saint and missiles from the Prince of Peace.
But don't worry. Jesus and Santa are old news. Tomorrow it'll be something else.