Why Isn’t There More Diversity in Santa Claus?
By Tim Connaghan
Director of the International University of Santa Claus
This past year has seen an increase in the use of the term, “Diversity.” And now it seems, the word has made its way into the world of Santa Claus.
Some people are questioning the diversity of the man in the Red Suit. Of course, we are mostly talking about a few areas in the United States. If one were to venture to any country outside the U.S., you would see Santas of all types and nationalities.
Currently hundreds, if not thousands of Santas are seated in local malls and shopping centers across America. And you could call it a surprise, or a revelation, but the percentage of “professional,” diverse or minority, Santas sitting in the chair is very tiny, possibly less than 5%. Yes, most of today’s Santas are the average white male.
Why is this? Why don’t we see more Black, Hispanic or Asian Santas sitting in the mall? There are a couple of reasonable answers to this question.
ONE. The History and Legends of St. Nicholas, evolved over a period of almost seventeen centuries, and created a stereo-type of a seventy-ish, while male.
For the first fourteen or fifteen centuries, there was rarely a mention of race or heritage. Wherever St. Nicholas traveled, he was portrayed by someone locally, and thus mirrored the ethnicity of that community.
When renaissance artists started painting images of the Saint, it was not in the period when he lived with early roman clothing, or his home, in Asia-Minor, which is now Turkey.
But rather, the artists painted him in the regal robes of a bishop and often in their own image or of the world they lived in. And these images, most often, established St. Nicholas as a white male
With each country, he visited, he brought the message of secret giving, and in return story tellers, and artists, added to his legend, mixing his story with those of other local and regional fantasy characters. Figuratively, every country in Europe had a hand in making the Santa we know today.
And when the early pilgrims and settlers arrived in the new world, they brought St. Nicholas with them. And as the new citizens began settling, their St. Nicholas started his evolution into the current Santa Claus we know today.
This was also a period when the character of Santa Claus became more secular as versus the more religious image of St. Nicholas
The most radical changes occurred in the 19th century, as printing allowed graphics, drawings and paintings, to be added to the writings and descriptions that authors put in their stories. From the writings of Washington Irving and Clement Moore to the illustrations of Thomas Nast, the image of Santa Claus started to solidify.
Color printing in the 1880’s and 90’s added more images with Santa in suits of different colors, Burgundy, blue and of course the ‘prime’ color ‘Red.”
But his look remained that of a white male with a beard of white.
Printed advertising grew at a fast pace in the beginning of the 20th Century and many companies relied on Santa as a perfect salesman for their products. Again, he continued that stereotype of the white male.
And these images were the ones the American public, and the entire world constantly saw in books, newspapers, magazines and retail advertising. This public also included the children.
Even the new motion picture industry seemed to follow the same look for advertising. Later in the 1940’s, Famed make-up artist, Max Factor would bring all studios together to establish a unified look for Santa. The goal was to keep the look of Santa the same everywhere, thus maintaining the magic that Santa could be everywhere.
Again, the look Factor suggested was that seventy-ish, while male with a white beard, salt and pepper eye brows, a body shape similar to W.C. Fields, and highlighting the nose with a #14 red rough.
We know that the strongest imagery for Santa Claus has to be the remarkable work of Artist Haddon Sundblom, who was selected by Coca-Cola to create a new advertising campaign in the early 1930’s.
The paintings for his ads were seen in every major magazine, in store displays, and on billboard, buses and other outdoor advertising. And, as Coke expanded their marketing to other countries, their Santa went with them.
This image by Coke truly saturated the public and thus solidified the general look of the” Traditional Santa,” the world over.
“Red Suit with white fur trim, black or brown boots and belt, white beard, and of course he was a slightly plump, white male.”
Many artists followed this style in their works. There was no area of the country you could travel without seeing this giant white bearded Santa Claus
TWO. About 60 years ago, post WWII, when almost all Santas wore theatrical beards and wigs, a child visiting a Santa would often only see him for a minute and usually in a little cottage or special room. And in most cases, the Santa they visited was the average white male wearing a theatrical beard and wig. And very much the image we discussed above.
In that one minute the child had to 1) tell Santa his name and age and maybe what City he lived in, 2) remind Santa that they had been good, 3) tell him what present they wanted for Christmas and 4) Pose for that very important photo.
And as the child was departing, Santa might also give them a little gift. It was a very memorable and Magic moment. And there was little time to truly investigate Santa, his wardrobe and his beard. So, the children maintained much of the magic of Santa Claus.
There were some areas of the country where department stores in Atlanta, and Chicago sometimes featured a black Santa, or in Texas or California where a bi-lingual Hispanic Santa would be seen. But they too would be wearing the theatrical beard and wig.
The agenda today, is much the same. Except now Santa is in a large open area, usually in a Mall. And now the children can see him and watch him for 20 or 30 minutes or even more.
And the more the Children watch Santa, the greater chance the illusion and magic can weaken. So now the Santa must be “real” bearded if he wishes to keep the Magic of Santa being ‘Real.” He must also continue the legends of Santa.
Now before I go on, please don’t blame the malls or photo companies, or entertainment companies. They are constantly searching for ‘real’ bearded Santas of all races.
THREE – The third reason for the tiny amount of diversity is because of public demand. The public decides on who they want their children to visit each Christmas. The children have seen the movies, read the books and have heard the bedtime stories from their parents, telling them all about Santa.
And the parents want that magic to be kept alive, so they set out to fulfill the dream with a visit to the “Real” Santa, one with a “Real” beard! They want their children to see and meet the ‘real’ white-bearded gentleman, who will be coming to their home Christmas Eve, thus continuing the magic, legends and traditions of Santa Claus.
Many a parent will complain that their children are growing up to quick and their childhood is gone too soon. If they could keep their children believing in the ‘real’ Santa, for one more year, the parents feel good about it.
And the answer or reason for parents wanting a “real” bearded Santa is simple. The children are very smart. They can often detect someone with a theatrical beard. And should a child see that, the magic is gone . . . possibly forever.
So now we have a demand for a “Real’ bearded Santa. Now comes the difficult part. Where is he.
FOUR – The truth is there are not enough “diverse,” “real,” Santas in the inventory.
So many men from various ethnic backgrounds either cannot grow a good beard, or if they can, will not forego the multiple bleaching’s to become white bearded. The small number of Black, Hispanic or Asian men who have natural white beards are often the ones we see in special malls and shopping centers.
Outside of that most often, when we see a black or Hispanic Santa, he is often wearing a theatrical or temporary beard and wig.
If we look at the volunteer and community Santas, (those wearing theatrical beards and wigs) the percentages are much higher, maybe even as high as 50%. Especially since police and firemen do a lot of community service as Santa.
Recruiters for the Photos companies and Malls are always on the look for a “Diverse” Santa. Many malls would love to add the Diversity to their holiday programs, offering this special service for their customers. The opportunities are there for the taking.
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A Santa for over 47 years, Tim Connaghan heads The Kringle Group and is the author of “Behind the Red Suit – the Business of Santa Claus.” He directs, School4Santas, the International University of Santa Claus, where he has graduated over 3,300 Santas and Mrs. Claus. He is the National Santa for the Marine Corps, Toys for Tots Foundation and for 13 years has been the Official Santa for the Hollywood Christmas Parade. Additionally, he operates RealSantas.com, supplying Santas for Corporation, Associations and even Private family events. He has appeared in commercials for Oreo, Target, Sears, to name a few and appeared on the Tonight Show, Today Show, the Mentalist, Castle and in motion pictures. In 2012, he was inducted into the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame. He can be reached at: Santa@NationalSanta.com .