“Santa just is white...Santa was a historical figure." Megyn Kelly, Fox News
Boy did that statement create quite the ruckus! For one, nothing gets us Americans into the holiday spirit more than a good old political or religious debate. As if those two topics aren't exciting enough, we just love to throw in a little race to make the mix just a tad bit spicier. Is Santa white or not? Let’s get to the bottom of this right now.
First things first. I know this will shock you, but folks I feel it’s my obligation to let you know Santa is … Not. Real. (audible gasp)! I know, I know. It’s a travesty. How dare I suggest such a ridiculous thing! But really, the mythical figure we know and love called Santa Claus, is not actually a real person. He doesn't really live in the North Pole. He doesn't really have a host of slaves, I mean elves, at his disposal to make tons of toys. He doesn't really have a bunch of reindeer that take him to houses all over the world to leave presents for little boys and little girls. Well, just the good ones. The bad ones are just shit out of luck. But I digress.
Santa may not be real, but the original St. Nick, from whom the legend of Santa Claus sprang, was in fact real. And he was, in fact, NOT white, but he is now.
Just for now, let’s suspend the romantic notions and legends and lore and just take a look at the facts and the timeline of St. Nicholas shall we? You know what I mean. The stuff that’s actually verifiable. Let’s work our way back.
American Santa 2.0 (aka) Coca-Cola Santa / Shopping Mall Santa
Coke has been selling us our current image of Santa since the 1920s. According to the Coca-Cola website, their version of Santa has undergone several renditions, but the essence has pretty much stayed the same. The first Santa’s followed closely to the skinnier, elf-like versions that were more popular in the 20s thanks to Thomas Nast. Their ads were so popular from the beginning that the Coke Santa became a holiday staple. In the 30s, the artist, Haddon Sundblom, took his vision from a popular poem you’ve probably heard of, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” and this version stuck. But let’s talk more about Nast.
American Santa 1.0 – Fat Santa from the North Pole
Red suit trimmed in white fur. Fur trimmed hat. Long white beard. Red nose. White complexion. Glasses. Where in the world did this image come from? In 1881 a political cartoonist by the name of Thomas Nast created him. He even placed him in the North Pole and gave him a wife. But somebody had to make all the toys that he was giving away, hence the elves were also born.
We can mainly attribute our modern day version of Santa to Clement Clark Moore. Sound familiar? He should. He was the guy who wrote “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” in 1823. Moore described Santa as a “jolly old elf” who was “dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot” with a “bundle of toys he had flung on his back.” And then we get a very specific description, “His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry! His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow, And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow; The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath; He had a broad face and a little round belly That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly. He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.”
The Dutch/American Version
Sinterklaas was the Dutch version of St. Nicholas, who was not only the patron saint of children, but also known as the patron saint of sailors. His legend of kindness to children and the poor spread throughout Europe. He was arguably Europe’s most popular saint. Although he was not officially canonized by the Catholic church, he has been revered for his generosity and life of selflessness since his death in the 4th century. For the Dutch, his image became one that was merged with the god, Odin, which accounts for many of the “whiter” features attributed to Santa today. You’ll notice some physical similarities. When the Dutch settled in America in the early 1600s, they brought the tradition of celebrating Sinterklaas with them.
The Original St. Nick
Turns out St. Nicholas was born sometime around 260-280 AD in the Greco-Roman town of Patara, an eastern Mediterranean port, in the country of Lycia (today known as Turkey).
Hmmm. He was a Turk. Okay, technically he was Greek. Mediterranean. Whatever. The point is, he definitely would not have looked like the jolly old St. Nick who is lovingly plastered all over the media today. Would he? Unfortunately, all of the images history has given us of St. Nick have been artists’ interpretations of the saint. Thank goodness we live in the time of technology. Research was completed in the 1950s as well as after the new millennium, after the saint’s bones were temporarily removed from their crypt in Bari, Italy, and reconstructed. Of course, the technology in the 50s was very limited, thus we were still limited to sketches of the researcher’s idea of St. Nicholas’s image. Thankfully, with today’s technology available, we can get an idea of how the real St. Nick looked. Dr. Caroline Wilkinson, a forensic pathologist, was able to use 3D scans in order to re-create the face of St. Nicholas in 2004. The fascinating results were featured on BBC as well as The Discovery Channel.
What the researchers could gather: he would have been just over 5 feet tall (short, even for his time) with a slender build. Given the geographical area, he would have had the darker features (olive-toned skin and brown eyes) typical of the Greeks of that time. It’s known that St. Nicholas lived into his 70s, so gray hair and a gray beard are assumed.
So, after a long journey through multiple countries and cultures, from man to saint, from skinny to fat, from olive-skinned to Caucasian, here is the original St. Nicholas.
Jennifer Furlong has 25 years’ experience in the communication field and teaches communication and public speaking courses in the Savannah area. She earned a B.A. and M.A. in Communication from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. She currently resides in Richmond Hill, Ga. with her family of canines, felines, and humans. Let's be social! Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter. Just look for Professor SpeechLady. See you in cyberspace.
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