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 letters “US.”
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 Cheyenne.
Thomas Nast’s American Santa was indeed white. But that’s not something we should celebrate.