I’m Dreaming Of A Brown Christmas
Jesus and Santa both came from the Middle East. So, yeah.
To be a child again at Christmas! Walking through the mall as the first snows fell outside; lights twinkling, bells tinkling. Waiting in line to see Santa, with his frosty white beard and rosy cheeks. Walking to church in Catholic school, with Jesus gazing down from the hallway statuary, his blue eyes framed by golden locks… It was a special time indeed!
As a half-black kid, though, it might have been even more special if every Santa and Jesus in my life had looked a bit more like me, rather than, say, Ted Nugent or Edmund Gwenn — the white, English actor who played Santa in the 1947 classic “Miracle on 34th Street.”
Not only would it have been more special, it would have been more accurate.
Let’s start with Jesus, who was from Nazareth, a small city about 25 miles east of the Mediterranean Sea. Today, Nazareth is a part of Israel; back in Jesus’s time it was part of the Roman Empire. But whatever regime the town was under, Nazareth has always been a distinctly Middle Eastern city and as such, has always had a majority brown-skinned population — as most of the Middle East has.
As the historian Edward J. Blum noted in a 2013 essay for Aeon, the Bible is “pretty quiet” about skin color. And unfortunately, there are no existing portraits or sculptures of Jesus that were made during his lifetime. But as a Jewish man living in the eastern Mediterranean region 2,000 years ago, Jesus was almost certainly dark-skinned — and most historians agree on that point.
Though he’s almost always depicted as a white guy in Western Europe and the US, in the Eastern Orthodox iconography of Greece and Russia, Jesus often brown or black.
As for Santa, well, of course Santa is a fictional character. But that character is based on a very real person: Saint Nicholas, or — more accurately — Saint Nikolaos. Saint Nikolaus was a Greek bishop who became well-known in the third and fourth centuries AD for defending Christianity from the whims of cruel emperors and for bringing happiness to ordinary people by giving them secret gifts.
The now-famous Christian saint was from a small town called Myra. Back in the day, Myra, like Nazareth, was part of the Roman Empire. Over the years, Myra and the surrounding region were taken over by a series of different governments, from the Byzantines to the Seljuks to the Ottomans. Today, Myra is part of Turkey. But whatever administration was controlling it, the vast majority of the region’s inhabitants have historically had brown skin.
In fact, back in the 1950s, when a team of facial anthropologists were working with Saint Nikolaus’s skeleton in Italy to reconstruct what he looked like, they decided that the olive-brown complexion common to most Greeks was the most likely color of his skin.
Nevertheless, the Western world usually portrays Saint Nikolaos as being white, often blindingly so. (In the Eastern world, it’s more of a mixed bag: Icons in Greece and Russia and the Caucasus region often depict the saint with darker skin.)
So there you have it, Megyn Kelly.
Knowing these guys had brown skin shouldn’t ruin Christmas for white people. It’s just science — in fact, it would have been weirder if they’d been born white, in lands where everyone else was born brown.
Perhaps most importantly, race is actually a societal construct; sociologists and biologists have said race doesn’t really exist from a scientific point of view. And the whole point of Jesus and the saints is that they transcend the small-minded views that separate us rather than bring us together. A brown Jesus still died for your sins; a brown Santa will still get your kids excited on Christmas Eve. We’re all one, and that’s the true meaning of Christmas, anyway.