Thought that jolly red-suited old man with a long white beard was a one of the few comfortingly apolitical symbols of the holiday season? Think again.
In Britain, I imagine few minds will conjure an accurate image when told to consider a ‘Māori Santa’. I imagine fewer still will be aware of the passionate — bordering on furious — debate brought about by the physical manifestation of these two words in Nelson, Aotearoa New Zealand, at the beginning of this month.
“Where’s Santa?” This was the unified exclamation of both children at parents as the long-awaited Santa float rolled down main street. For most in the crowd, it was “definitely not Santa” on the sleigh.
Where was the quintessential white beard? The white-trimmed velvet red suit? And, most scandalously of all, how had an old white man (or Pākehā as the Kiwis say) somehow morphed into a young Māori man wearing a floral shirt and korowai (feathered cloak).
Is this the death of Santa as we know him? And for that matter, can this newest manifestation of St Nicholas really call himself Father Christmas?
This is no isolated event. Rather, it points to a deeper issue. In the age of identity politics and growing awareness of social, gender, and racial inequalities, (for some) there is growing discomfort with the unspoken Christmastime law that Santa Claus must be an old white man.
Though at least one commentator on Twitter this week declared this to be “outrage tactics” and that “nobody cares about an imaginary man’s gender,” this is not so. The identity of our friendly Christmastime intruder is indeed up for real — and not wholly unjustified — debate.
Indeed, people do care very much about the imaginary man’s gender. In some cases enough to lose their job over it. Auckland's long-standing Santa Claus was this year sacked for an “inappropriate” comment on women.
The offending comment? That only men should be cast in the role of Santa.
In his own words: "It is my responsibility that the people hired to perform the character of Santa Claus are able to be as authentic as possible in order to provide the best possible experience for children.”
So whether you like it or not, the debate’s a real one.
Hereto the burning question: must Santa Claus be a fat white man?
Broadly, yes. For two reasons: tradition and consistency. We should all be familiar with how the story of St Nicholas developed into the modern day Santa Claus (with a little help along the way from Coca-Cola). Our jolly friend’s name, Santa Claus, is itself a development of the Dutch Sinterklaas.
Moreover, the physical appearance that we all know so well isn’t simply of Santa, it is Santa. Without the identifiable costume and traits, what we have is not Santa, just an imposter.
If this seems a little unfair, consider this: if I choose to redesign the Union Jack in green, purple, and orange, can I still call this the Union Jack? Certainly not.
The most important defence of Santa-as-we-know-him, however, is that of consistency. After all, I feel a bit foolish debating the identity of (spoiler alert) an imaginary being. Sorry to say, but it’s been quite a number of years since I left primary school.
Nevertheless, as a child, the myth of Santa is something to be cherished. There those, of course, who argue that we shouldn’t be lying to children about any of childhood’s great imaginary figures: Santa, the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, et al. But this is another debate for another time, and perhaps one best left to psychologists, not political ideologues.
Interestingly, after the furore of Nelson’s parade, a group of Wellingtonians led a Facebook campaign (with support from over 5,000) to ‘Bring Māori Santa To Welly!’ Needless to say, the originators of this campaign weren’t children, for whom Santa’s unique recognisability is an integral part of the fun and magic of growing up.
In Nelson, however, after the non-appearance of the ‘traditional’ Santa, there were “tears” from children while the event’s organiser defended the decision as art. To quote, “that’s what art does, it’s made to make people think.” Has the beloved Santa Claus really been reduced to little more than a political canvas?
Indeed, debates are still to be had about entrenched inequalities between genders, identities, and ethnicities — but Santa is not an appropriate proxy for this. Let some magic remain. For, so long as we engage in heated political warfare over the nature and identity of Father Christmas, kids’ imaginations and hopes are the collateral. Please, just let Santa be.
Why don’t we all take a well-earned break this holiday season?
Meri Kirihimete me te Hapu Nū la.