Should I be making plans to take my grandchildren to see Santa Penguin, right after we decorate the Holiday tree?
I try not to let the secularization of Christmas get me down, because it is a beautiful and sacred season that I look forward to every year. But this year, the rhetoric around Christmas has gotten downright disheartening.
For one thing, the American Atheists are back in Times Square with a billboard that suggests we take Christ out of Christmas, because the really important things about Christmas are the Rockettes, presents and Chinese food (included, I suppose, because Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas, offering sustenance to the fictional family of “A Christmas Story” and to real-life Jewish families).
But it’s the penguin that’s really got my goat. Slate magazine blogger Aisha Harris suggested in a post that we ditch the pink-cheeked Santa in favor of a penguin, because kids of every color like penguins and no one will feel excluded. She recalls her childhood, when she would see white Santas in the mall and black Santas in her neighborhood. When she asked her father why. “My father replied that Santa was every color. Whatever house he visited, jolly old St. Nicholas magically turned into the likeness of the family that lived there.”
What a wise and wonderful father, offering up what I thought was a perfect answer. But Ms. Harris didn’t buy it. She goes on to say how she felt so ashamed of her dark skin because she thought the real Santa must be white. I hope that’s not true, because I hate to think of any child being ashamed of who she is. But I’m also tired of the annual attempts to make me feel guilty for being a Christian.
I believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. I celebrate His birth at Christmas, mourn His death on Good Friday and revel in His resurrection on Easter Sunday. I was born and raised a Catholic and the church welcomed me back with open arms even after I had left it for years. One of the most beloved Christmas traditions is to tell children about Santa Claus, a jolly old man who lives in the North Pole and delivers gifts to good children all over the world. To young Christmas celebraters, it’s enchanting to think about Santa visiting every home all over the world. Santa is completely inclusive in these young minds. You just have to be good!
The legendary Santa Claus sprang from the real-life St. Nicholas, a wealthy and generous young man from what is now Turkey. He became a priest, and then a bishop. I don’t know if he had rosy red cheeks, but I do know he was not a penguin. He was an actual flesh-and-blood human being. His first act of beneficence saved young girls who were on the verge of being sold into slavery. His story spread throughout Europe, and Europeans brought him, and their traditions of giving each other small gifts, with them to the New World. The legend spread and morphed and St. Nicholas became Santa Claus, known for his trademark red suit and his bowl-full-of-jelly tummy.
I am not denying that our country has been, and in many ways still remains, divided by race. But Santa Claus is not the culprit. The fact that black Santas existed in Ms. Harris’s childhood was a sign that African-Americans had embraced this delightful custom as part of their (very Christian) celebration of Christmas, but ornament makers and greeting card designers hadn’t yet caught up.
I don’t know if Ms. Harris will take any solace from this, but every child worries that the Santa on whose lap they are perched is not the real one. The hope that he might be is part of the magic of Christmas.
Somehow, I just don’t see a penguin pulling that off.