Micek: Santa is not white
Larry Jefferson, a black man, played Santa Claus at the Mall of America in Minnesota for four days last week.
Naturally, racists on the Internet lost their minds over it.
"I clicked on the story fully expecting that they picked a Somali to play Santa. That would be fitting for Minnesota," someone named Victor Edwards, surely destined for a lump of coal in his stocking, wrote in the comments to a story posted by a CBS station in Minnesota. "Have a radical muslim who hates America and the western world play Santa. Give him a gun and some knives under his red suit and when the little Christian children come sit in his lap, he can cut their throats."
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, at least, had the presence of mind to turn off its comments on its story about Larry Jefferson, a U.S. Army Reserves veteran, who's spent 17 years playing the jolly, old elf to kids of all ages and colors.
Jefferson, who's in his mid-50s, told The Washington Post there's a pretty simple reason why he plays Santa every year:
"They're far and few between," Jefferson, who is in his mid-50s, said of Santas of color. "That's why I do it."
And when he looks at his fellow mall Santas, he doesn't see white guys, black guys or Asian guys, he sees "Brothers in Red Suits."
According to The Post, Jefferson, who grew up in a family of 11 siblings, always loved Christmas. When he was 12, his father, down with a bad back, said "I need you to be Santa for me."
Jefferson stepped up "[waiting] until his siblings were fast asleep before he quietly opened the door and crept out to the car to carry in the Christmas presents," The Post reported.
The Mall of America's proprietors turned to Jefferson because, quite sensibly, they thought it would be cool if children of color, for the first time in the shopping mecca's 24-year-history, had a Santa who looked bit more like them.
And not the lily white Santa largely foisted on the nation by the Coca-Cola Co. nearly a century ago.
Oh ... wait. You didn't know that?
A little history lesson then: The Santa that most of us grew up venerating? The pink-cheeked guy with the big stomach and fur-trimmed union suit? He actually boasts a large number of cultural antecedents.
For instance, St. Nicholas, the guy who started it all, was a Greek born on the southern coast of Turkey in the third century.
And even though you probably instinctively understand it, Christmas observations vary wildly by nation and some don't even involve an overweight guy, in likely violation of fire and building codes, tumbling down a chimney where stockings have been hung with great care.
The American Santa Claus, the one Larry Jefferson is getting so much grief for playing, was popularized by Coca Cola in the 1930s, helping to fix him in our public consciousness.
The company, by the way, didn't invent that image either — it was drawing on images from 1906, 1908 and 1925, according to Snopes.com.
Of course, this isn't the first time we've seen this kind of pointless freak-out.
People have asserted, incorrectly, for years, that the famous baby whose birthday Christians celebrate every December, was white.
Fortunately, saner voices on the web, including the actor George Takei, sprung to Jefferson's defense.
"Watching people meltdown over a black Santa in the Mall of America. 'Santa is white!' Well, in our internment camp he was Asian. So there," Takei tweeted last week.
It seems silly to have to repeat this, but here goes: Santa isn't white. He isn't black. He's an ideal that lives inside us.
"He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy," the editorial board of the New York Sun wrote to eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon back in 1897. "Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished."
And if Larry Jefferson, who by happenstance of birth, is black and wants to spread that kind of joy, he deserves nothing but our unalloyed encouragement and support.
Because that's the actual spirit of Christmas.
John L. Micek is the opinion editor and political columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.