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In diverse U.S., Santa Claus has many faces, races

By Russell Contreras
Associated Press
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/19/20/24/MQlNn.Em.138.jpeg|316
    John Bazemore - AP
    In this Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013 photo, Dee Sinclair, portraying Santa Claus, reads a story to children in Atlanta. "Kids don't see color. They see a fat guy in a red suit giving toys," says Sinclair, 50.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/19/20/24/1iLBwi.Em.138.jpeg|210
    Jae C. Hong - AP
    Dressed as Santa Claus, Langston Patterson, 77, smiles at a baby at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza on Monday, Dec. 16, 2013, in Los Angeles. Since his importation by European settlers, Santa Claus has evolved in the United States from his Dutch-English origins made popular in the early 20th Century to many adaptations based on the nations multiethnic experiences. Fusing the icon of the long-white beard and red suit from American artist Norman Rockwell and later Coca-Cola, in recent years the new Santas incorporate their own ethnic take on the Christmastime figure with various interpretations.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/19/20/24/ZZ8zN.Em.138.jpeg|217
    Pat Sullivan - AP
    Pancho Claus performs at a charity holiday event Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013, in Houston. The Tex-Mex Santa grew out of the Chicano civil rights movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s and is sometimes referred to as Santa Claus cousin from the South Pole. Houston's Pancho Claus, Richard Reyes, took on the role in the early 80's after his teenage sister was killed in a drive-by shooting.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/19/20/24/14nM7z.Em.138.jpeg|210
    Matt Slocum - AP
    Paul Moore, dressed as Santa Claus, holds his hands in the air after he handed out holiday gifts to children at the Philadelphia Police Department's 12th district station, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013, in Philadelphia.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/19/20/24/Q9XYg.Em.138.jpeg|464
    John Bazemore - AP
    In this Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013 photo, Dee Sinclair, who bills himself as the "Real Black Santa" smiles as Paris Allen, 7, reacts after passing a naughty or nice test in Atlanta.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. In Atlanta, children of many races share their Christmas wish lists with a black Santa Claus.

In Houston, Santa dons a red zoot suit and dances to jazz as he hands out gifts in Mexican-American neighborhoods.

In Indian Country, Native American Santas add American Indian attire to their red snowsuits, visiting shops and community centers from the pueblos of New Mexico to the reservations in the Pacific Northwest.

Santa Claus may be popularly known as a white-bearded benefactor with Dutch-English origins, but multiethnic versions of Santa are making the rounds out there too – illustrating that in an increasingly diverse United States, Santa takes on whatever color you imagine him to be.

“Kids don’t see color. They see a fat guy in a red suit giving toys,” said Dee Sinclair, 50, of Atlanta, who bills himself as the “Real Black Santa” and sports a very real, very white beard to prove it. He said in his 12 years of Santa-dom, he has posed with children and adults of all backgrounds during appearances at art centers, private parties and the occasional suburban Christmas tree lighting.

“The character to me is all about the spirit of Christmas,” Sinclair said. “If we leave Christmas to ourselves, we’d be all right.”

Biases challenged

This holiday season, however, not all reactions to nonwhite Santas have been jolly.

At Indiana University in Bloomington earlier this month, a dormitory bulletin board posed the question, “Can Santa Claus be a black man?” in hopes of generating fruitful discussion about racial stereotypes. Instead, it generated outrage on social media because it asked other questions that played to stereotypes, such as whether a black Santa would only visit the ghetto. The display, which a university spokesman described as well-intended but “misguided,” was taken down.

Last week, a high school teacher in Rio Rancho, N.M., was disciplined, and apologized, for telling a black student who dressed as Santa Claus, “Don’t you know Santa Claus is white? Why are you wearing that?” The teacher has been placed on paid administrative leave.

Also last week, Fox News host Megyn Kelly sparked a heated debate when she declared on air, “And by the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white,” during a panel discussion about a blogger’s essay arguing that children of other races could feel alienated by constantly seeing Santa as white. Kelly later said her comments were motivated by humor, not “by any racial fear or loathing.”

That situation was promptly skewered by comics such as Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Kenan Thompson of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”

Richard Reyes, 62, of Houston, who has portrayed “Pancho Claus” for 32 years, found this year’s debate over Santa’s race surprising. He has seen Santa transformed into many images for years, he said. In his version, Pancho Claus has a goatee and accessorizes his zoot suit with sunglasses and a fedora.

“For these diverse times, it’s important for children to see Santa in all these different forms,” Reyes said.

17 centuries, many Santas

Andrew Chesnut, the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said depictions of Santa Claus as a white man came about mainly because he was a European import, a blend of the Dutch Sinterklaas and British folklore character Father Christmas, with elements of Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century Greek bishop in modern-day Turkey.

“But there is no reason he can’t be portrayed as black or Latino,” Chesnut said. “We live in the most pluralist, diverse society on Earth, and this is going to happen.”

Chesnut compared Santa’s evolution to that of La Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. That image came from a black Virgin Mary from Spain who transformed into an indigenous icon in the Americas to relate to the population, he said.

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