Pagan Reflections of Santa; Race, Myths, Beliefs, and Importance

Crystal Blanton —  December 24, 2013 — 25 Comments

santaControversy hit the airwaves this month when Fox News correspondent Megyn Kelly referred to Santa as being white. She was responding to an article on Slate magazine, by columnist Aisha Harris, about the complications of having a white Santa in a multicultural society, and suggested he should instead be no race, like a penguin. Kelly responded to this by having an on air discussion about the “Attack on Christmas”, and her views of the “facts” that Santa is indeed a white man.

“For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white. But this person is maybe just arguing that we should also have a black Santa. But, you know, Santa is what he is, and just so you know, we’re just debating this because someone wrote about it, kids.”

Not only did this incident cause a stir in mainstream media, it also appears to have created some colorful conversations within social media. Some of those conversations have filtered onto Pagan blogs, articles and Facebook threads, striking up conversations about who Santa is and who he is not. Is Santa really a depiction of Odin? Or is Santa a folkloric icon that has been commercialized in American culture? Are the roots of Santa Claus coming from the stories of good old Saint Nicholas, or is he a generated figment of our cultural imagination?

The responses have been vast, and opinions vary based on many factors, including a person’s belief of whether or not Santa is totally made up, or that he is a part of the historical mythology of the Norse. One of the biggest questions might be whether it matters at all. Is the issue arising from Santa’s potential race about preserving folklore, opening up holiday lore to be inclusive of Black and brown people, or trying to be too politically correct in our multicultural society? Questions with many different answers.

While there are a myriad of different thoughts on the place of Santa Claus in the lives of children, especially within Pagan homes, there is something to be said for how powerful messages of overculture can be in defining our belief systems. Consistent images of the white faced, bearded man in red, often connects to childhood memories, feelings of family, and emotions associated with this time of year. While associations of this time of year are not joyful for everyone, there is power in the image of Santa. Jason Mankey, writer of the Raise the Horns blog on Patheos Pagan Channel, wrote about this magic in his piece on the history and origins of Santa Claus, “It’s a magical memory, the exact type of thing that the image and myth of Santa Claus should conjure up. Santa Claus has power and an energy all his own. To say that Santa “isn’t real” completely misses the point. Few myths are as universal in the Western World as that of Midwinter gift-bringer, and it’s a myth that speaks to the best of who we can be as people. Santa is the spirit of giving and child-like wonder, two impulses that are often in short supply”.

As I see it there are a plethora of issues in potentially conflicting matters like this, individual and familial culture, religious beliefs, mainstream culture, appropriation of ancestral mythology, and the implications on overall current racial tension. The intersectionality of these various issues can create a lot of challenging perspectives.

All of the aforementioned areas add to the Pagan community’s ability to question our collective identity within the overculture of Americanized holidays and values. How do the Americanized holidays affect the practices and beliefs of those who walk a Pagan path?

Upon watching the Megyn Kelly segment on Fox News, I personally struggled with two different, and sometimes conflicting, elements of my personal identity; valuing the mythology that intersects with Pagan beliefs, and the need to challenge the often harsh reality of exclusions within our American stories.

So what do Pagans think about this Santa, Norse, fictionalized conflict, and is it important? Does it matter more to some subsets of Pagans over others? I asked a couple of Pagans some questions on these exact things.

jonathan korman

Jonathan Korman

Santa has a great bushy beard and a sled drawn by reindeer and a magic bag of wonders; that such a figure would not have some kind of connection to Norse myth seems … implausible.

But there is no tidy answer to such questions.

Is Hermes “really” a figure from Egyptian mythology because Hermes is “really” Thoth?

The gods and spirits and so forth are refracted through a cultural lens, and they do not break crisply from one another. The Hermes of my practice both is and is not the same entity as the Hermes an ancient Greek would have encountered. The Santa Claus I encounter both is and is not the same as the Santa encountered by a Christian Minnesota six-year-old in 1890. – Jonathan Korman

Melanie Moore

Melanie Moore

I suppose American Santa has roots in Odin but most of them are completely twisted and watered down. I don’t desire to use him in my family’s traditions.

In fact, I decided even before I had children that I would not do Santa. I feel badly for parents who get roped into buying their child’s secret expensive gift in the name of Santa. And the “naughty” manipulation. If Santa doesn’t bring your expensive gift – is it because you’ve been naughty? – Melanie Moore – midwife, dancer

Lupa

Lupa

The Santa Claus we think of here in the U.S. may resemble his pagan forebears, but at this point he’s become his own icon. I think it’s important to allow there to be a modern mythology, especially in a culture that often feels it doesn’t have one. This is especially important for Santa Claus since the prevailing theme is “Believe he’s real as a child until someone tells you otherwise, and then he’s just a marketing strategy”. I think looking at Santa as his own mythical being and taking him a little more seriously can reintroduce some of the wonder and magic of the Christmas season at a time when the holiday has become heavily commercialized. That doesn’t mean that every American has to become pagan, of course! But just as we have the mythos of the Rugged Individualist here, I think we could also use a more solid buildup of Santa mythos as it pertains to American culture–generosity, good humor, and a healthy dose of wonder and little-m-magic.

I don’t think it impacts us more than it impacts anyone else. We all are affected by the craziness of the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas (and, more and more, we’re seeing Christmas decorations for sale in mid-October!) I do see the desire to “reclaim” a more pagan Santa to be something of a backlash both against that commercialization and Christianity on the part of some pagans, though there are also just those who are curious about his roots. But I don’t think that images of the jolly old man in red and white affect pagans specifically either way.

I grew up with a fairly typical roster of Christmas celebrations–the tree and ornaments, presents, carols, etc. It’s something that’s invested with a lot of fond memories and good feelings, and it’s something I carry on even today. Santa is a part of that, though I suppose if I had children he’d be even more present.

I do recognize that for the most part Santa is depicted as a white guy. However, I personally feel that he can show up as any race–there are old men with white hair (and sometimes beards) all over the world. I think the problem is more that “white” is the default race for depicting all sorts of individuals (look at the situation with Jesus, for example). And yes, the original St. Nick wasn’t white. However, I feel Santa Claus, through means good or ill, has again become his own being, and I feel that because of his popular appeal among Americans of many different races, he should be depicted with more diversity himself. By this I mean being depicted as being of all races in turn, not just one. (And not just a case of “when he’s going to a white family’s house he’s white, when he goes to a black family’s house, he’s black, etc.) He could potentially be a mythological figure who can be for everyone, and carry that holiday spirit of “peace and love for all your neighbors”. – Lupa, author

Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey

Santa Claus is an American phenomenon, this is where he got his name, his modern look, and his red suit. Without America there is no Santa. Of course Santa Claus has roots in other cultures and other things. The Christian tradition and mythos of Saint Nicholas is a building block, and I think Norse/Germanic mythology is another building block.

I know that there are a lot of Pagans who resist celebrating Christmas because they think of it as a “Christian” holiday. Santa being such a visible figure can make that difficult, so that’s way he impacts Modern Paganism. I’m a firm believer in Christmas as a mostly secular Midwinter celebration with pagan and Christian influences. As such, it’s something I enjoy celebrating and I like seeing Santa involved in it. When it comes to inescapable modern icons, Santa with his message of giving, isn’t a bad one to have plastered everywhere for two months out of the year. Now if we could just popularize Befana and Krampus – Jason Mankey, author

While I feel that Kelly’s comments on her television segment were culturally insensitive, biased and racially provoking, there is room to question how mythology, present culture, political factors, and cultural capital all play into the individual and collective needs of the Pagan community. For those who are people of color, there are a multitude of layers to unpack around the continuous stream of American folklore, mythology, holidays, and bringers of hope that are always white faced heroes. This lack of multiculturalism trickles down into the many subsets of our general society and directly impacts perceptions of the status quo.

With that in mind, I specifically wanted to ask Pagans whether they thought the race of Santa had any impact on community.

LaSara Firefox Allen

LaSara Firefox Allen

I believe that Santa as a true entity is beyond race, or religion. Or even gender. But just as “God” (capital G – as in, the Christian God) is presented as a white man in most cases, as a Mystic I believe that the heart of god is inconceivable. I believe that Santa shows up in pop culture mythology as an old white guy because that is what power shows up as in the dominant culture. But I have known since i was young that Santa is an entity that shifts Its presentation. This is why I can still be such a solid believer. If we claim Santa, Santa become a mirror of our own divinity, and we a mirror of It’s. – Lasara Firefox, author

Connie Jones-Stewart

Connie Jones-Stewart

I believe that the Santa Clause of today is a totally fictionalized and secularized character that has developed over time. He may have some elements of Odin, La Befana, St. Nicholas, Father Christmas and others but he is none of those people. I don’t believe that Santa impacts Pagan or Christian culture. He is part of secular Xmas and secular culture. I see Santa as the spirit of giving that comes with the holiday season. He has no race nor religion. – Connie Jones-Steward, Interfaith Minister

Shauna Aura Knight

Shauna Aura Knight

As a kid raised in an almost all-white school system, in an almost all-white town, seeing images of a non-white Santa might have made me do a double-take. Then again, seeing a non-white Barbie doll would have made me do a double-take. However, I also would have just shrugged and thought, why not. For me, the modern image of “Santa” is something that’s, how to put it…he’s an archetype that should be a mirror, a gift to the community. I grew up with a Santa that looks like me and I’ve always taken that for granted. I grew up with Barbie dolls and toys that look like me. But I also know that Santa comes from an older tradition. Ultimately, one of the sources of what we now call “Santa” may have come from Asian/Siberian shamans bringing mushrooms to their tribe. The modern image of Santa was really branded and solidified by Coca Cola, if memory serves. For me, it’s not important what color Santa is, Santa’s a secular concept that belongs to our culture, and I don’t think it takes away anything to have a Santa that is Black, or Asian, or any race or color. Because, kids should get to grow up with a Santa that looks like them.

Deities and spirits change over time, and based on location. They change to become culturally relevant. I think the modern concept of Santa doesn’t need to be limited to being white; I think a multi-racial Santa is more culturally relevant. Deities and spirits and archetypes change over time, they always have. It’s what makes them live and breathe.- Shauna Aura Knight, author

jonathan korman

Jonathan Korman

What with the sleigh and the reindeer and the furs and the elves and the home as far north as north goes, one might presume that Santa Claus is Norwegian or Finnish. But then Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Smyrna, was presumptively Greek in what is now Turkey; that guy doesn’t sound so … pale. But that misses the esoteric truth of Santa which we only reveal to children when they are ready to hear it, that Santa manifests in our performance of him, be it putting on the costume or delivering gifts under the tree; in that Santa is and must be anyone and everyone.

This lesson, that Santa is a role which anyone may inhabit, is contained in my favorite Santa Claus story, the Twilight Zone episode “Night of the Meek”, in which a department store Santa discovers a magical, inexhaustible bag of gifts and begins distributing them to the poor. Only at the end, at the prompting of a friend, does it occur to him to ask for something for himself — and all he can think to ask for is to be able to do it every year. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Night_of_the_Meek) – Jonathan Korman

Porsha Williams

Porsha Williams

I feel that the Pagan community would be more wide open to any/many different representations of Santa Claus compared to greater society. As pagans (and to use a term I’ve seen used recently within posts on the Kemetic Tumblr-verse)–”unique personal gnosis” is considered valid, in reference to our experiences with ritual and study of our gods. What feels right, is held in higher regard to our community than greater society. It is respected, vs. ridiculed and discredited because it’s not the norm.

It’s common knowledge that greater society does not accept what’s different without some sort of pushback. In the case of Santa being white or black, I feel that unfortunately it still matters greatly whether he’s portrayed as black or white. Unfortunately, the old guard of baby boomers through Generation X were raised with those “racial boundaries” still firmly intact. As younger generations like Generation Y and the Millennials came up–the time of Jim Crow and it’s customs were more textbook lesson than recent memory. These generations are coming of age with little-to-no boundaries due to social media, shared interest in each other’s differences (vs. aversion) and a lack of fear of any repercussions of racial mixing. While these factors would make a “black Santa” less of an issue for them, the old guard will stick to their learned behavior as they get closer to the end of their life cycle. It’s what’s comfortable and what’s known–sadly yet respectfully, I believe greater society will continue to be impacted in that manner until newer generations come of age. Though the Pagan community does have those few sects of worship who remain firm in their belief that racial segregation is necessary in their chosen path, they are few in comparison to our community as a whole. – Porsha A. Williams, writer of The First Dark

With such a wide variety of associations with the figure and importance of something like Santa Claus, who is to say what he is, who he is, and how important he should be? As we have seen here, the is such a variety of thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about this historically significant figure that is is not as clear, as black and white, as some people would like to believe.

blacksantaThe lines between myth and truth, culture and interpretation, race and identity, religion and belief, magic and practice has not always been as transparent from one person to the next. There are a lot of shades of grey within any black and white, Pagan or Christian scenario.  And regardless of the beliefs of origin or importance, we have to admit that Santa is one powerful source of magic to captivate so many people across time. And in my opinion, power has no color or race.

Several recent links on Santa myth and history:

For full statement from Shauna Aura Knight, Jonathan Korman, and Jason Mankey, please click the following link.

Author’s note: A special thanks for the heartfelt, interesting quotes from those who had a moment to respond.

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Crystal Blanton

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Crystal Blanton is an activist, writer, priestess, mother, wife and social worker in the Bay Area. She has published two books ("Bridging the Gap" and "Pain and Faith in a Wiccan World"), and was the editor of the anthology "Shades of Faith; Minority Voices in Paganism." She is a writer for Sage Woman and Patheos' Daughters of Eve blog. She is passionate about the integration of community, spirituality and healing from our ancestral past, and is an advocate for true diversity and multiculturalism within the Pagan community.
  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    Reminds me of the Milky Bar campaign that used a little black boy as their public face (1994, I think. Could be wrong, though.)

    It called all kinds of controversy at the time, but ultimately blew over.

    …Until a girl was given the role in 2010.

    Personally, I don’t see the issue with Santa being any particular colour or gender. It is essentially the patron saint of capitalism, anyway.

    Here’s a question: Does it matter what colour the corporate symbol of the solstice season is?

    • Crystal Blanton

      I think that depends on who that questions is directed to. I do not personally think it is just about Santa as a corporate symbol. It is more about one more example of an ongoing presentation that is exclusive to the multicultural nation that we live in. There are very few examples of other types of symbols that other types of people can show their children. We are so limited in that way here in the US.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        Glad I don’t live in the US.

        • Crystal Blanton

          Don’t misunderstand. it is beautiful here and a place of great diversity. If you haven’t been here it might be easy to think that.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Not travelled outside of Europe, and only travelled a limited amount within it. Can’t say I have much interest in changing it – I’m Landisc (geographical polytheism).

  • Robert Paxton

    I’ve been in a weird place with Santa the past 3 years: cheerfully ignoring that thoughtform as something for the kids before then. And then, along came Circle’s annual Winter Solstice Pageant — our one big annual interfaith production, held at a UU church in Madison.

    The coordinator came up to me and said “Help! Help! We don’t have our Santa anymore!” So…I bought a Santa suit off of Amazon and gamely went forth to represent one facet of the winter holidays. Which as a ritualist was not exactly in my core competency — I ended up being the skinniest Santa ever, with my ponytail sticking out more often than not, the beard sliding down my face more than once, and once almost inhaling the little foam piece at the end of the portable mike.

    The kids loved it. Hell, the adults loved it too, judging from the looks on their faces. I’ve now done this three years running, and it’s strangely growing on me.

    Here’s the thing: Santa is an iconic and instantly-recognizable character of good cheer and gifting. It doesn’t particularly matter what gender or skin tone the player is; Santa is archetypal. Far as I’m concerned, whoever fits into the Santa suit and can project a lusty “Ho Ho Ho” out to the back of the room is Santa enough.

  • Charles Henderson-Blake

    I think it might have been missed, or people’s news sources missed it, but Megan Kelly was being facetious and continuing the joke that was in Aisha Harris’ own article. Harris’ own article was heavily satirical as evidenced by the penguin suggestion and a pointed barb about how race is sensationalized. This was supposed to be a silly fluff piece that due to the lack of source checking became this ‘evil bigoted Megan Kelly’ story in other media outlets. Slow news day, find something, anything to make copy.

    But then again, it doesn’t really matter for any serious adult to get worked up over what the racial profiling of Santa Claus is, any more than it does to question the sexuality of gonad-less Teletubbies! The morals, lore, and character of Santa Claus are who he is, and our current and future racial and political sensitivities do nothing and will do nothing to eclipse that.

    • Crystal Blanton

      I wholeheartedly disagree. I think it has nothing to do with being a serious adult or not. It has a lot to do with what it means for different people to live in the world. As a person of color, that means something different for me than some others. And if you do not have experience or sensitivity to that dilemma, then it is hard to compare your version of serious against anothers? I think there are many different elements of society that look very different to those who come from different cultures. It is a huge aspect of multiculturalism.

  • http://www.walkofthefallen.com Labrys

    We never did “Santa” with our children. We told our children that Santa was meant to represent the spirit of giving and joys of the season. We did, while living in Germany, celebrate “St. Nicholas Eve” and visit St. Nick and Krampus as a cross-cultural exercise. And we told our children that St. Nicholas represented the same thing as Santa. Supernatural beings didn’t bring gifts to our offspring; they were always told WE bought their gifts and it was based on financial ability, not their goodness or badness.

  • http://www.cernowain.com/ cernowain greenman

    Another aspect of this discussion is that the “Santa is white” crowd
    also believe they “own” Santa, as in “he’s white and he’s ours and don’t
    you even think of taking him from us”. They feel an ownership of the
    image of Santa and do not want to share him. They do not want others
    reinterpreting him. It is a selfish attitude…. one that strangely
    contradicts Santa as a symbol of giving.

  • http://www.eyeofhorus.biz/ JR Hansen

    Of course, it could be argued that Santa is not a “white” Scandinavian/Norwegian, but a Sami, so really, kinda brown: http://satwcomic.com/santa-is-a

    • http://www.forgingthesampo.com/ Kauko

      The Sámi are brown? Looking at the pictures of Sámi people on Wikipedia ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sami_people ), none of them look brown to me. They mostly look like other Scandinavian and Finnish people. In any case, the whole ‘what race is Santa’ thing is silly because everyone knows that Santa is a actually a goat.

      • http://www.eyeofhorus.biz/ JR Hansen

        LOL – I based my knowledge on folks with Sami heritage that I know, and “Dark Finns” in my family, which have been mistaken for asian or egyptian.

        • http://www.forgingthesampo.com/ Kauko

          I get the Asian part, but I was thrown by the ‘brown’ part. For what it’s worth, being of Finnish descent, I have often been asked if I had Asian ancestry, particularly when I was younger (but as I understand it, it’s not uncommon for people of European ancestry to have an epicanthic fold as children which goes away with age). I don’t get that as much anymore though. Also, almost no one in my family has light hair or eyes; we all have dark hair, including my actual family members that came from Finland.

    • Ashley Yakeley
      • http://www.eyeofhorus.biz/ JR Hansen

        No, they are indigenous to Europe and some people look rather asian, some light colored, some dark: http://www.baiki.org/content/indigenous.htm

        • Ashley Yakeley

          Of course they are indigenous to Europe. Europeans generally are indigenous to Europe. And Europeans generally have a range of skin tones. And some of them even have epicanthic folds on their eyes (e.g Björk, who isn’t Sami). That doesn’t make them Asian or indigenous American.

          • http://www.eyeofhorus.biz/ JR Hansen

            Fortunately, we are in agreement. I never said they were indigenous American, I said some, including my grandmother, look asian Some Sami and Finns do share a larger percentage of DNA with non-European peoples, Ranging as far east as Siberia, and are very different genetically than swedes and norwegians, and sharing some genetic characteristics of Asians which other European populations do not. Though this is a sensitive topic to many. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sami_Genetics

  • Ashley Yakeley

    Don’t forget Santa Claus as one’s own father, traditionally the person Santa is revealed to be (e.g. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”). The Mystery of Christmas is a child’s first initiation, and initiates should be sworn to secrecy and not tell their little siblings.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      “Don’t tell the truth”? What crappy kind of initiation is that?

  • kenofken

    Billy Bob Thornton will always be Santa to me! :)

  • Oberon Osiris

    Greetings, As a long time Wiccan who has lived in the Detroit area my whole life, I’ve been used to Black and Hispanic Santas since the 1970s. Everyone around here is used to seeing them, even if some may not appreciate it due to…tradition.
    I am also a proud grandparent of a mixed race child who, at 7, still does not see her two heritages as dramatically different from each other. I ‘m thinking that is a good thing, but this is Detroit, most of us have lived in communities with many many different races and nationalities. Detroit is home to the largest population of Middle East folks outside of the actual Middle East. The formerly Polish enclave of Hamtramck now has over 100 languages spoken in it.
    To find heavy overculture symbolism of Christian White Christmas, you mostly have to go to the malls – which in this part of the country, did not have major crowding for the usual sales and deals.

    Christmas spending is down this year, at least around here. The economy has hit this area too hard for too many years, and the culture wars just don’t have as much cred here.

    I recently saw a picture of Christopher Lee, who at 91 has recorded a heavy metal Christmas jingle. He’s wearing a Santa cap and looks more like Sauron from Lord of the Rings. But his aging semi-Italian looks make him, perhaps, the new picture of a not quite American/White Santa. (I think it was photoshopped, but it’s the scariest Santa, ever.

  • g75401

    Santa, for me, has become more real to me as I get older. Sure, I grew up with the commercialized version, only to wake up one night during a “bathroom break” for Santa and find my parents were both still up and discussing which of my siblings was supposed to get a certain item. And, sure, I made the mistake of combining Santa and xtianity during my early adulthood. It took my having kids and spending December remembering the family of my childhood while watching my own children grow to understand Santa. To me, Santa is the wheel of the year, the ending and the beginning, the passing of life from the old to the young, the giving of gifts, and the reflection of time manifested in the present. Santa is an archetype, a manifestation of spirit. To think Santa has a “race” or even a “gender” misses the point. But that’s just me….To address the Megyn Kelly issue, I live and work in conservative SE TX and I worry that what she meant is similar to sentiments I hear here almost daily, that the “givers” for the minority population, the ones considered the “47%” who don’t work and are dependent on government handouts, are white, hence, the reference to Santa being white.

    • nope

      your full of shit! Well
      he is he is Norse! Claus,Kris Kringle,Doner, Bilston,Rudolph! Theys are
      all names I hear Harlem! Wait no there teutonic! Yes he is german evey
      one knows Germans Are black! whats next Odin was black as well! I think
      some one need to say hey we know were the legend came from hes white!
      He has a German name and his reindeer do as well! Why is it wrong for him to be what he is?
      Being pagan you know Santa is Germanic reverse racism is still racism!!!

  • Merlyn7

    If you want a very pagan Santa, check out the 80s stop motion animated The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus where he is raised by faery spirits (including one voiced by Leonard Nimoy).

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rmNfvB5KuIA