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 since 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, who, clad in a full Santa suit and beard, joked about Kelly's comments and quipped: "You heard of secret Santa? Well, here's a secret for you: I'm black as hell!"
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.
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 4th-century Greek bishop in modern-day Turkey.