Symbol of largesse - black or white Part of Santa's baggage: his role in giving kids wrong message about meaning of Christmas

December 24, 1992|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

Santa Claus: Kindly old gent or outdated patriarchal figure?

In this era of multiculturalism, it is inevitable that Santa Claus would come under question: He's just so darn . . . white. And male. And consigns his wife to cookie-baking tasks.

"Santa Claus is a symbol. Symbols are very important in how we direct our lives," said Katherine Canada, a Goucher College associate professor of developmental psychology. "And the symbol of power, happiness and generosity during this time of year is a white man."

Rethinking Santa Claus is nothing new, of course -- in the 1960s blacks and other groups pressed for depictions of Santa as someone other than a blue-eyed white man. But the current revisionist thinking on Santa Claus is that black Santas aren't just important for black children.

"I think it's important for white children to sit on the laps of black Santas and black children to sit on the laps of white Santas," said Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a Harvard psychiatrist and co-author of a recent book, "Raising Black Children." "There should be all types. And wouldn't it be nice to see a black woman as Santa Claus?

"So many of the make-believe characters -- all of them, actually -- are white. Black children grow up with the impression that only whites have the power to give things," he said.

Dr. Poussaint and Dr. Canada don't buy the argument that it's "only" Santa Claus and thus shouldn't cause such hand-wringing.

"You can say it's 'just' God. Santa Claus is a very powerful image to children," Dr. Poussaint said. "Santa is like the great, white father image."

For others, the issue is not whether Santa is white or black; rather, it's getting kids to appreciate that there are other ways of celebrating the season beyond the Santa-dominated American version of Christmas.

"We talk about the myths of Christmas around the world and how different cultures celebrate Christmas, like pinatas in Mexico," said Shirley Johnson, principal of Edgewood Elementary School in Baltimore, where kids also had a Kwanza celebration. "The issue of whether Santa Claus is black or white hasn't gone away, but here, we're looking at the symbol, and the happiness that Santa signifies."

Fewer black Santas

Ironically, given that in recent years, many white characters -- Bart Simpson, Snoopy -- have turned up black on some T-shirts, some have observed that there seem to be fewer black Santas than in the past, particularly the 1960s and 1970s.

"That to me demonstrates that as soon as groups ease up on the pressure, people go back to the institutional images," Dr. Poussaint said.

Black Santas can be found at some local malls, but spokeswomen at the shopping centers varied on whether they thought race was an issue for them.

"I think it's very important that [Santa] reflects the mall you're in," said Sonja Sanders, sales and marketing manager of Mondawmin Mall, where both the Santa and many of the shoppers are black. "Especially with the African-American lifestyle, there are not sufficient reminders that they're part of this society -- look at the ads, the dolls. It's a self-image thing."

"I don't think Santa has a color," said Lori Marler, marketing director of Westview Mall, where one of the Santas working there this year is black. "It's never been an issue. I don't think it matters to kids."

Harborplace spokeswoman Kate Delano said both Santas happen to be white this year, but there have been black Santas in the past. Either way, however, race hasn't been an issue, she said.

Lauri Altman, marketing director at Golden Ring Mall, said she's never had a complaint about Santa's race. Both the mall's Santas this year are white and, given that about 70 percent of the mall's shoppers are also white, hiring a black Santa wasn't an issue, Ms. Altman said.

Equal opportunity Santas

Bob Riggs, president of Santa Plus, a Missouri-based firm that hires Santas for several hundred malls in the country, including Golden Ring, said federal equal opportunity laws prohibit the company from using race as a reason for hiring or not hiring applicants. Santas generally reflect the community of a mall, he said, because applicants generally want to work near home, he said.

In picking Santas for various city-sponsored events, race hasn't been an issue, said Bill Gilmore, director of the Baltimore office of promotion. The city had a black Santa for the "Holly Trolley" tour in Upton.

"I think fat and jolly is more important than race," Mr. Gilmore said. "Also, a lot of times, we use volunteers, so often it's whoever we can get that day. And we don't always use Santas because we like to bill our events as holiday events rather than Christmas events."

Like any ubiquitous symbol, Santa Claus undergoes periodic rethinking. Parents over the years have worried whether Santa symbolizes materialism rather than the true spirit of the holidays, whether telling children about Santa constitutes lying, whether Santa was usurping the role that religious figures should play in the holiday.

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