Photo of the Day: Was St. Nicholas “White”?

(By Juan Cole)

Fox News’s Megyn Kelly maintained this week that Santa Claus and Jesus are “white.”

Screen Shot 2013-12-13 at 4.11.13 AM
Russian icon of St. Nicholas of Myra on whom the figure of Santa Claus is based.

Santa Claus is a Dutch corruption of Saint Nikolaos, a fourth-century saint from the Mediterranean coast of Anatolia in what is now Turkey. He was also known as Nikolaos Thaumaturge, the master magician.

Eastern Orthodox icons of St. Nicholas (the Latin form of the name) often depict him as dark-skinned, to show his Mediterranean origins.

As David Roediger argued, the American term “white” was deployed by middle and upper class Protestants of northern European origin to demarcate themselves not only from African-Americans but from working class Catholics such as the Irish and from the wave of immigrants 1880-1924 from southern and eastern Europe, including Lebanese, Italians, Greeks, Poles and Jews. The US actually had a Chinese Exclusion Act, and in the hysteria running up to the enactment of racist immigration laws in 1924, some newspapers accused the Lebanese and Syrians of being Asiatic and in the same category therefore as the Chinese and equally undesirable. Only gradually did the Catholic immigrants become accepted as “white.”

Insofar as St. Nicholas was a Greek speaker from Asia Minor in what is now Turkey– and therefore like the Greek and Syrian Eastern Orthodox Christians– he certainly could have faced racial prejudice in early twentieth century America. Omaha Nebraska broke out in an anti-Greek riot in 1909 that left one dead, did over $200,000 in damage to shops and homes, and forced community members out of the city. In the teens and twenties, the Ku Klux Klan, the bastion of whiteness, conducted an “anti-Hellenic” campaign in several American cities. (The Klan was a big important organization in the 1920s and came to power in Indiana, e.g.)

So while St. Nikolaos would probably be considered “white” in today’s America, he would not necessarily have been in the early twentieth century.

Likewise, a Jew from Nazareth would definitely not have been considered “white” by many Protestant Americans in the early twentieth century. There would have been social clubs he couldn’t have gotten into.

But here’s the kicker. Megyn Kelly has an Irish name, and if she is Irish-American, then she would not have been considered “white” by many Protestant northerners in the nineteenth century. There is a sense in which the Irish and other immigrants invented the idea of “whiteness” precisely because they were unskilled immigrants doing the same jobs as African-Americans and needed to distinguish themselves racially in order to lay a claim on a higher social status than their occupations would have warranted. When the first big waves of Irish immigration arrived in the US, the Protestant elite often viewed them as “black” and even attempted to connect Celts to an African origin.

Can we get rid of “white” as a category, please? Its very use is a form of constructed racism designed to exclude rather than include. Can’t we just be Americans? After all, a lot of “whites” have African-American or Latino heritage and do not know it. If we said “Euro-American,” demarcating origin by geography the way we do with other ethnicities, that might make sense. But then the silliness of saying an Anatolian and a Palestinian are “European,” or (as Kelly implies) “Euro-American” would be immediately obvious.

27 Responses

    • If Kelly is narrow-minded, then so are the millions before her and the millions today who draw on the century old depiction of Santa as being white.

  1. The idea of what constitutes ‘white’ should be reformed. Within each racial group, there is great diversity. The problem is as Americans we want to know is it a or b, and whatever it is can only be selected from those two things. But life isnt simple. Among white racial groups there are blonds, redheads, brunettes and many shades of skin colouring.

    That being said, it is Fox news where its reporters are (mostly) blond whites with a couple of blacks, and not much in between. The reporters often hail from regions of the US that are either geographically insular or socially hierarchically and rigidly structured. They also miss the spirit of what Christmas is all about — brotherly love and sharing what you have with those who are without

  2. I like to use the term pink, instead of white. More accurate for many, and helps push back on “If you’re white, you’re right”.

  3. After writing my initial comment, I came across the original article on the controversy, where a Slate writer, Aisha Harris, recommended Santa be represented as African American.

    First of all, why are grown ups arguing over a fictional character?

    But on another level, what is wrong with having role models who are from diverse backgrounds and cultures? Do all our role models have to look just like we do? To subscribe only to role models who represent one’s own ethnic or racial groups, is pretty narrow-minded. Both reporters are being silly and retreating to a mental enclave devoid from intricate and inter-linked realities.

    • The big question: were you saying this before reading Harris’s column?

      It’s pretty obvious that St. Nick and Jesus weren’t as white as the average English person circa AD 0-500 was, yet white people constantly depict them as such. My guess is that they feel that their role models should come from their own backgrounds and cultures, otherwise they have little value as role models. This is probably why Kelly is pushing back against Harris – these are Kelly’s role models, not Harris’s.

      So, yeah, it’s silly, but it’s a little strange to only call out Harris for writing a column in Slate advocating this and not say anything about the white people who have invested a great deal of work in actually constructing the analog of what Harris advocates over the course of several centuries.

      • There were no “English” people AD 0-500 (nor were there “French” or “Italian” or “Spanish” people – yet!). The recently evacuated Roman province of Britannia was a melange of Celts, Romans, and Germanic peoples, with the invasions of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes yet to happen – forget the Danes and the Normans.

        As for Jesus, if he existed he probably looked a helluva lot more like Yasser Arafat than Max von Sydow. Polemics aside, how one depicts Jesus is culturally determinate: the early Christian community depicted him as a beardless youth, sometimes depicted him as an “roans” figure (i.e., one orating), and not infrequently he was depicted variously as a magician, Orpheus, or Hercules (early Christian artists sometimes couldn’t make up their minds).

        I don’t recall seeing a bearded Jesus until quite late (by my standards – i.e. fifth century AD). Bearded Easter Bunnies of course became fashionable in Renaissance England and have stuck ever since.

      • My last sentence above cites “both” reporters. It’s pretty much an acknowledged fact about Ms Harris repeatedly trumping herself and there’s not much more can add to that.

  4. Perhaps we should all send Megyn Kelly copies of The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter so that she will understand her place in the scheme of things.

  5. Please keep in mind this is a Russian icon. In all probability it represents St. Nicolas of Myra as dark-skinned precisely as a way to sow discord and controversy in the United States. Why anyone would believe Russian attempts to portray the original model as anything other than a chubby bearded white man puzzles me. Next they will attempt to undermine the US governments $4.1 billion research project on load capacity and flight endurance among reindeer teams, putting American security further at risk. Resist Soviet meddling by believing in a white Santa. And airborne reindeer!

    • Perhaps they were poking holes in this notion St Nick would be so far from the equator… with that tan?! No way!

  6. I take it that you support ending Affirmative Action, then? Since this would be a logical consequence of getting rid of the “white” category…?

  7. I have an idea. Stop with the categorization of humans now. It serves no purpose. Except alienation.

  8. Santa Claus

    Ignorance knows no bounds! Secular Muslim Turks happily claim ole Saint Nick as their own; he returns the favor by promoting Christmas/New Years as party and gift-giving time, decorated trees included. Meanwhile, the terms White Turk and Black Turk are used to refer to both a geo-ethnic and a religio-cultural divide between those secular elites of Western Turkey and the more conservative and pious central and eastern Anatolians who form the core supporters of the ruling AK Parti. To add to the story, a Turkish geneticist recently outraged many Turks, especially the nation’s uber nationalists by asserting that the Turkish people do not constitute “a race.” Actually, he was not singling out Turks except by way of example, but commenting all ethnic groups that claim a “racial affinity.” He argued that race is a cultural, not a scientific concept as is its consequence, racism. All this, of course, would be far too difficult for Ms Kelly to fathom.

  9. I’m 43 and grew up in North Dakota, about as ‘white’ a state as exists in the US. I have reached that point at which I no longer can accept the legitimacy of such categorization of Americans as white, black, African-American, Asian-American, etc. Unless one is an American citizen with additional national citizenships, it makes no sense whatsoever to me to define individuals as ‘-American.’ Additionally, all members of homo sapiens are genetically compatible with each other for purposes of procreation, so it is utterly illogical to define ‘races’ of human beings, as it merely describes very, very slight genetic differences which have developed as a result of periods in which people procreated in a somewhat isolated fashion in a particular area for a significant period of time. Most of these traits, after a few generations of procreation among human beings of different ancestral geographic origins, become visually undetectable, or blended into a different, interesting genetic makeup that can not be said to be ‘racial’ in the modern sense of the word. Americans live in the most ethnically diverse country in the world – why have we not reached the point where we can simply refer to ‘racial’ differences, which after all, are only based on appearance, as what they are – ‘light/dark/moderate’ skin tone, etc. When I mention ‘dark skin tone’ to family or friends, most look at me and say ‘black, right?’ I respond – ‘no, I’ve never seen a black person in my life – I’ve seen a few white people, they’re called albinos and it’s rather unfortunate condition, but I’ve never seen a black person. I’ve seen people with all sorts of brown-ish hues of skin, and people with pink-ish hues of skin, and, of course, orange-ish tan, kind of khaki-ish tan, and a lot of other colors. I describe human beings with various skin tones as well as hair colors and attributes as People. I don’t know any other way to think.’ Some call me naive, some just smirk, and some pause a moment or two and give the matter some thought.

  10. M. Kelly AND Google – I swear. Where do they come up with this stuff??? Completely out of touch with Santa’s true identity – absolutely.

    link to google.com….0…1c.1.32.img..0.5.483.cS_1h94Yn4o

  11. link to images.search.yahoo.com

    M. Kelly, Google, AND Yahoo. Earth to Kelly, Google, and Yahoo – please get a clue and stop tolerating the display of such ignorance…not to mention biased. It’s so obvious Google and Yahoo are lead by white privileged men whose perspectives are still stick in the 50′s.

  12. Saint Nikolaos of Myra was of Greek descent — born in Patara, a Greek colony located in Lycia. His ancestors were from Crete. He migrated to Myra to live with his uncle after his parents’ untimely death. For the record, Myra was also Hellenized by the Greeks.

    Yes, Megyn Kelly was politically incorrect. And in the end it matters not what race or color Santa Claus is. He is many different things to different people.

    All this being said, modern day Santa Claus is an evolution of Sinterklaas –not Saint Nikolaos. Sinterklaas rides rooftops upon flying horses, has a white beard, showers young kids with gifts, listens at chimneys. Alas, Sinterklaas is associated with plenty of racist undertones (google: “Sinterklaas and Black Pete”).

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