Jesus, Santa Claus, and Race

A video has been popping up in my news feed on Facebook that shows Fox News’ Megyn Kelly asserting both Santa Claus and Jesus were white men.

Kelly’s assertion is strange and in many ways this is a silly topic, but we can let it spur on an interesting discussion of race, ethnicity, and the Christian faith.

Let’s first address the historical matters. St. Nicholas was of Greek descent, born in the late 3rd century in Patara, in Asia Minor, or what is now modern day Turkey. The likelihood is slim that he had the white skin and rosy cheeks of popular depictions of Santa Claus. His skin was probably somewhere between the olive tones of Mediterranean folks to the brown hues of the Middle East. (See here for an estimated reproduction of his face.) One can argue, and some have, that Kelly is wrong for making such a strong statement that Santa Claus is white because the Santa who lives at the North Pole is a fictional character who has little connection to the historical St. Nicholas, who acted as bishop of Myra. Either way, Kelly’s assertion about Santa’s race falls apart.

Jesus, we know was born in Ancient Palestine and was of Jewish descent. He probably looked like an average Galilean Semitic male of his day. That is, he probably didn’t look like the fair-skinned, blue-eyed, soft-haired person portrayed in so much Western art. His complexion and hair were likely darker than those of most ethnic Europeans.

Some forensic anthropologists say this image is probably a better representation of what Jesus looked like

These historical matters make us question our preconceptions and depictions of Jesus’ appearance and race. Our ideas of Jesus’ appearance come to the front during Advent and Christmas when so much art representing his family is on display in Nativity scenes, or crèches. My family has several Nativity scenes throughout our home. They come from different cultures and depict the Holy Family in a variety of ways. We have a crèche from Senegal that portrays the Holy Family as Africans. We have one from Mongolia that comes with a yurt. We have another from America with the figures looking generally Caucasian-ish. In portraying Jesus and his family as Sengalese, Mongolian, or Caucasian, these Nativity scenes contain dramatic historical inaccuracies and thus limits their value as representations of what actually happened in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago.

Senegalese Nativity

These multicultural crèches, however, contain enormous worth as theological mnemonics for the meaning of Jesus’ birth and incarnation. (Please don’t read that I’m making a Jesus of history, Christ of faith dichotomy.) The crèches from around the world show us Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us,” in our very specific circumstances. Jesus is present with the Senegalese on the plains and with the Mongolians in their yurts. I am therefore not so upset with depictions of Jesus and his family as northern Europeans. I think it is appropriate and necessary to have depictions of the Holy Family in which they look like northern Europeans, just as we need Nativity scenes in which Mary and Joseph look like Māoris or Peruvians or Sri Lankans to remind us of Jesus’ presence with us in our cultures and peoples. These cultural specific crèches can be wonderful tools for mission as well as a way for a culture to embrace the story of Jesus as their own.

Czech Nativity

The danger comes when we take these cultural specific representations and tell other cultures this is what Jesus looked like. This is what has precisely happened with the northern European Jesus with the flowing locks of sandy blonde hair and blue eyes. It has become the dominant image of the historical Jesus and a symbol of colonialism. Imposing this historically incorrect image on other cultures does not allow those people to experience the Palestinian Jewish man who wandered the Galilean shore speaking Aramaic and Greek. Further, it hinders their ability to experience Jesus’ incarnation in the midst of their language and traditions.

Mongolian Nativity

On the other hand, I believe our faith can grow immensely by reflecting on Nativity scenes from different cultures, just as our faith matures when we sing praise songs to God in different languages. We begin to see just how universal and intimate the God of the Bible is. Jesus came in a very specific time and place and he continues to meet us in specific times and places. My understanding, appreciation, and experience of God only deepens as I witness other cultures encountering Jesus. I love it that in a few days I’ll be celebrating the birth of God incarnate at the same time as my brothers and sisters in Korea, Sweden, Zimbabwe, Canada, Australia, and Bolivia.

As we celebrate Advent and Christmas, let us remember the historicity of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem as well as the theological truth of his ongoing incarnation in our wonderfully diverse and beautiful world. May our Nativity scenes reflect both of these realities.

Check out the site, World Nativity for beautiful, culturally-specific Nativity scenes from third world and developing countries.