Pundits have sunk their teeth into a fight recently over whether or not Santa was white. After Fox News commentator Megyn Kelly declared Santa’s whiteness was a given, some called up the history of the original St. Nicholas (the patron saint of scholars, as well as children, by the way) to point out that the historical figure was Greek and therefore probably not light-skinned. Others have responded by noting that “Santa” is a universal and timeless figure who should not be bound by any physical characteristics.
But there is a different story worth noting in this odd debate. In fact,
America has its own, very specific version of “Santa” who arrived
during a particular moment in American history. That moment was the
1880s, a time when the nation appeared to be reaching some kind of
healing after the deep wounds of the Civil War.
By the 1880s, Americans North, South, and West, had reached a political
equilibrium, and that calm appeared to be driving a healthy economy.
Politicians had ceased to fight over reconstruction. Northerners had
come to accept that white Democrats would control the South; northern
leaders turned to new western territories to make up the electoral votes
they needed to continue to hang onto national power.
After a terrible financial crash in 1873, the economy had begun to pick
up again by 1878, and by 1880, Americans were feeling flush and
optimistic again. They began to celebrate significant events with
parties and gifts. Weddings were no longer small affairs in someone’s
front parlor; now they were elegant occasions in a decorated church with
a reception afterward. For the first time, parents held parties for
their child’s birthday, and those invited brought gifts for the guest of
honor. Thanksgiving became a major holiday, marked with feasts of
turkeys, ducks, or geese.
Nothing showed this change more clearly than the arrival in 1881 of cartoonist Thomas Nast’s iconic Santa. Printed in Harper’s Weekly
before Christmas that year, the image was one of American prosperity.
Santa was fat, warmly dressed, and smiling. He carried an armful of
children’s toys, including a belt with a buckle embossed with the
As Nast’s Santa showed, the new prosperity was uniquely American.
But the success Nast celebrated was uniquely American in a negative sense, too. It belonged only to the sort of people who read Harper’s Weekly:
white, well-off, and well-represented in government. These were the
nation’s new white-collar workers, middle men for the new corporations.
They, and their wives and children, had more money and more time than
Americans had ever had before. They had time to plan parties for their
children, and to tell them stories of a well-fed man who would give them
toys for Christmas—just because they were loved. These men were secure.
Government economic policies guaranteed that the booming economy would
continue to put money into their pockets, enabling them to continue to
coddle their children (who would go on to be the first generation to go
through high school and then college).
But most Americans did not share this prosperity. In the 1880s
industrial factories were growing while workers fell behind. Wages
dropped and working conditions deteriorated. Farmers, too, were ground
into poverty as overproduction depressed the prices of farm commodities.
The economic dislocation of the era was terrible for white workers and
farmers, but adding racial and ethnic discrimination into the mix made
the lives of most African Americans, immigrants, and Indians horrific.
At the same time, Congress sternly refused to consider any policies that
might help these Americans. Living in dirt poverty, working when they
could, their only experience with the prosperity of the 1880s was being
blamed for their inability to participate in it. There was no jolly
Santa Claus to bring toys to the children of southern sharecroppers,
Polish steelworkers, Chinese laundrymen, or reservation-bound Lakota and
Thomas Nast’s American Santa was indeed white. But that’s not something we should celebrate.