Dreaming of a Non-White Christmas: Santa, Jesus and the Symbolism of Racial Supremacy

A slightly different version of this piece was published as a ZNet Commentary, December 21, 2000. This is the most recent, 2005 version.

Well it’s that time of year again: time for all good Americans to focus on what really matters; not family, community, or world peace, but that national sacrament of late-stage capitalism known as holiday shopping. Whether you do it online, or drag yourself to the mall amidst the sea of humanity scraping and fighting for the latest must-have gizmo, rest assured that your actions are vital to the national interest. In fact, the annual consumer bonanza unleashed in the last fiscal quarter is so central to defining life in the U.S., that the economy’s strength in the beginning of the following year is literally tied to how much stuff we buy. So get out there and do your duty: Buy American. Be American. Shop ’till you drop, and remember, this is what it means to be a patriot.

Now, being one who doesn’t like to give advice that I’m unwilling to follow, I too have been making the pilgrimage to the shopping centers, both to purchase desired items, and also to observe others in the process of this sociologically fascinating ritual. As someone who regularly writes about racism, you can probably imagine that I have long been especially intrigued by the way in which holiday symbolism replicates notions of whiteness as rightness, and acts to reinforce, however subtly, racial supremacy. Yet, the full force of this process never really hit me until last week.

It was then that I found myself at the mall, passing a line of parents and their children, waiting to have a few seconds alone with Santa. You know Santa, right? The big white guy who only works one day a year and yet no one calls him lazy; the big white guy who exploits elfin labor in a sweatshop for no pay while his wife does all the housework, and yet no one calls him a slave master; the big white guy who invades millions of homes on Christmas Eve, and yet no one arrests him for breaking and entering.

Though one can see a few Santas of color in malls around the country lately, I think we can all agree this is pretty absurd. After all, if Santa were black, there’s little question he’d have been shot dead years ago in the vestibule of some New York City apartment by the NYPD’s Street Crimes Unit. Really now, how could the cop be sure that toy gun he was bringing to the kid inside wasn’t real? Better safe than sorry, and anyway, that bright red suit would make him a logical target, seeing as how red is the color favored by members of the Bloods street gang.

But it wasn’t this kind of irony about a black Santa that animated the comment I heard while strolling through the mall that day. No, it was pure racial resentment and nothing else leading the white woman, child in tow, to say to her friend, “Don’t you think it’s silly to have these Black Santas? Everybody’s trying to be so P.C. I mean, come on, a Black Santa? Everyone knows Santa is white.” Her friend agreed. Everyone knows Santa (a make believe entity for those who haven’t figured it out yet) is white. The insistence on the racial purity of this entirely fictional being struck me as hilarious–right up there with the folks who send get-well cards to their favorite soap opera characters when they fall ill on the shows. Ronald and Nancy Reagan are reported to have done this once, leading me to realize the dreadful truth: an awful lot of my white brothers and sisters are certifiably insane.

It all made sense though once I passed the woman and noticed the holiday cards in her bag. The ones with the calming, soothing face of Jesus staring back at me. You know the Jesus I’m talking about right? The one with the pale skin, blue eyes, and rock-star good looks? Yeah, that one: the one envisioned by pretty much everyone of European descent (and several of non-European descent for that matter) for the last five hundred years.

My wife and I have received many a Christmas card this year, and as always, the representations of Jesus that adorn so many of them cast the Christian Messiah as nothing if not European. I guess I never realized that the old song “A Child is Born in Bethlehem” had been referring to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, circa 1930. Silly me, but I always thought he was born in that part of the world we call the “Middle East,” which, if we were honest, we would easily recognize as basically a part of Africa, separated from the continent by the man-made Suez Canal. And since first century Jews were darker than the mostly European-derived Jewish communities of today, the odds of him looking the way he does in churches across America are slim and none.

But don’t tell that to most of his followers: especially the white ones. The suggestion that Jesus would have been dark enough to qualify as a person of color is enough to send most so-called Christians into fits of apoplexy. Of course, no one wants to admit their indignation at the notion, so they couch it in platitudes like, “It doesn’t matter what Jesus looked like, it only matters what he did.”

OK, fine by me. Although not a Christian, I’ve always thought Jesus said and did some pretty exemplary stuff. So if it doesn’t matter what he looked like, then why not make him black? I’ve asked this question when giving speeches on racism at religiously affiliated colleges, and let’s just say, there’s nothing like it if you’re looking to see how fast you can get folks to start clearing their throats. Again they insist, “No you don’t understand, it doesn’t matter what he looked like, it’s what he did.” And again I repeat, O.K., fine, if it really doesn’t matter then let’s make him black, just for a year. Then you can change him back again if you really want to. No dice, and no takers. We go round and round, as white folks check their watches and try to figure out how they can leave the room without seeming to be rude. But let’s be clear: the white iconography of Jesus that predominates in this culture makes absolutely no sense, except as an artifact of a white supremacist worldview.

First, the earliest representations of Jesus, Mary, and Christ’s disciples appear in the catacombs of Rome, where offshoots of the Jewish sect known as the Essenes buried their dead. All of these portrayals picture a dark-skinned Jesus. In addition, many years after his death, the Roman Empire under Justinian II, minted a gold coin that pictured Jesus. This coin, displayed in the British Museum, shows a man with non-white facial features and tightly curled hair, consistent with the description of Jesus offered in the Book of Revelations, or those in Ezekiel and Daniel, wherein it is noted that the Messiah (presumed, of course, by Christians to be Jesus prophesied) had hair like wool, and feet the color of burnt brass, and an amber-colored torso.

Now I don’t much care about the scriptural references myself, and far be it from me to insist on the infallibility of the Bible. But if the folks who swear that every word of it has to be accepted as literal don’t also accept these descriptions, which clearly contradict the imagery on the Christmas cards and nativity scenes one sees everywhere at this time of year, then they are nothing if not hypocrites.

And don’t forget, according to Biblical lore, when Jesus was born, Herod sent search parties out to find him and slay him as an infant. To hide the supposed Christ child, his family absconded with him to Egypt, and if there is one thing we can be pretty sure of, it’s that one would not have been likely to try hiding an Aryan baby and family in pre-Arab Egypt, of all places. This was, after all, a society comprised mostly of medium-to-dark-skinned Africans, as evidenced in their own hieroglyphs. Indeed, the Egyptians had referred to their country as Kemet (the Black land) for thousands of years, and themselves as “Kemetcu” (the black humans). The father of modern history, Herodotus, himself acknowledged as much when he said that the Egyptians, like the Ethiopians had “thick lips, broad nose, wooly hair and are of burnt skin.” Elsewhere, he referred to them as “black.” Although there had been various incursions by lighter-skinned folks into Egypt before Christ — namely the Persians, Assyrians and Greeks — it would only be with the Arab conquest in 639 that any real lightening of the nation’s color scheme would take place. If Jesus had been white, Mary and Joseph would have put him on a slow boat to Iceland, not trekked to Egypt where finding them would have been like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel.

Of course, for some this will all seem absurd, maybe even sacrilegious. But if you really want to see absurd, go pick up Volume I of the Robert Maxwell Bible Stories Series for children, which I assure you, is likely to be sitting on a table in your pediatrician or gynecologist’s waiting room right now. There you will find Adam and Eve depicted as if the Garden of Eden had been in Norway, despite the fact that Biblical scholars all agree the Garden, whether viewed as a literal place or as a fictional metaphor, was bordered by two rivers, the Biblical description of which only fits that of the Tigris and Euphrates, or perhaps the Blue and White Niles: none of which, last time I checked were in Scandinavia.

In fact, since “black” skin cannot come from “white” skin (as the relative deficiency of melanin is a recessive trait), and to the extent geographic dispersal would not have darkened fair-skinned persons to the extent we see the “blackest” on the planet — since by the time they could get that dark, third stage carcinoma would have long since killed them — there is only one possible conclusion to be reached: namely, anyone who accepts the Biblical account of creation must believe that “Adam and Eve” were black. Only from those original persons, of a dark human shade, could lighter-skinned folks possibly come. Science virtually precludes it from working the other way around.

Some may ask what the point of all this is, though frankly, it ought to be obvious. So long as our culture pictures Adam, Eve, Moses, Jesus, Mary, the Apostles, and even God “himself” as fair-skinned, despite the obvious preposterousness of such representations, we will continue to plant the seeds of racial supremacy in the hearts and minds of millions. After all, to believe that divinity is white like you leads one to easily assume that others are somehow less complete, less than human. If God supposedly made man in his image, and God is always portrayed as a bearded white guy (kinda like Santa without the suit), how big a leap is it — especially for children whose introduction to religion is always nine-tenths forced propaganda anyway — to assume that persons of color are somehow not full and equal “children of God?” Not to mention the sexist aspect of the male sky-God imagery, of course, which is a whole different can of worms.

So now that I’ve managed to piss everyone off, here’s wishing you all a very merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyous Kwanzaa, Resplendent Ramadan, Super Solstice, and Terrific Tet. Now get out there and shop! And for God’s sake, please take that damned Swedish-looking angel off the top of your tree.

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