Last week a black Santa appeared at the Santa Experience in the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. In the post-coital glow of the Trump-elect phase for white racists, there was an uproar on social media over the decision to give African American, former Army veteran Larry ‘Santa Larry’ Jefferson the job. The outrage was over what was seen as cultural appropriation of a ‘white’ traditional character, Santa.
The mall owner said in an interview he wanted a “Santa to be for everyone, period”.
One of the most virulent comments reported on DiversityInc was from someone calling the decision an “atrocity” and highlighted that “Santa Claus was a German character from centuries ago when blacks were eating each other in Africa”.
As an atheist Orthodox, (yes you can be that), I point out that the original Santa was a Greek bishop, not German. Basil the Great or the Bishop of St Nicholas, (Santa Claus), was also ordained the Bishop of Caesarea in Asia Minor, modern Turkey. And as far as cannibalism is concerned, there are reports of human flesh being sold in English markets in the 11th Century during famine and the first crusaders of 1089 ate the flesh of their Muslim victims in the Syrian city of Ma’arra.
Now to the authentic Santa; Basil the Great, we love the epithet ‘Great’, was a Middle Eastern Greek fellow, olive in complexion, tough, serious and very thin. The fat jolly and hyper-white Santa didn’t appear well up until the 19th Century and the red-coated one was a Coca Cola version.
The pagan Germans incorporated their god Wodan (Odin), also known as Jólnir, meaning ‘Yule figure’ with the St Basil, the Bishop of St Nicholas.
Basil the Great, attended school in 352 CE in Caesarea, Constantinople and Athens where he hooked up with St. Gregory Nazianzen and a bunch of other senior future Byzantine figures later to be ordained as saints.
The Holy Roman (Greek) Eastern Church honoured many of Basil’s sisters and brothers, as saints it was a classic Greek family business. Bishop Basil was from what my mother would have termed ‘a good family’. The bishop opened a school of oratory in Caesarea and practiced law – like many Greeks do.
He became a monk, found a monastery in Pontus, (modern Turkey), which he directed for five years, wrote a famous monastic rule apparently according to Catholic On Line “has proved the most lasting of those in the East”.
Basil would secretly give gifts to poor unmarried women so they could build a dowry sufficient enough to marry out of poverty.
He made bishop of Caesarea in 370 and was a renowned scholar, lawyer, an orator, statesman and renowned for his anti-poverty stance – a dreary socialist. He aided the victims of drought, petulance and famine and he was a clerical reformer enforcing learning of science, philosophy and literature on his clergy. He was a bit tight, not jolly at all, insisting on rigid clerical discipline and excommunicated those involved in the prostitution, slavery and human trafficking in Cappadocia.
His feast day is January 2nd and Orthodox celebrates Christmas traditionally on 7 January, the Epiphany, the day of lights, Foton, my name day, as part of the Julian calendar.
The Ethiopians, a most ancient Orthodox Christian people, (just after the Greeks), also celebrate on 7 January and their gift giving is by Yágena Abãt one of the Ethiopean Magi, or wise men who brought gifts to that infant Jewish baby, Jesus.
Trumpists, white supremacists, the French National Front, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation would be calling for the ban on the authentic Asia Minor Hellenic Santa and the Ethiopean, African, wise man.
Here lies the problem with anxieties over cultural appropriation. I don’t mind the Coca Cola Santa, as I grew up with him in Australia, equally I do not mind St Basil. As a kid in Greece I knew it meant two periods of gift giving, the 25th of December, and the 7th of January.
The last thirty years of intellectually naive deconstructionism, many who are shrill about cultural appropriation, who fain horror at a non-Mexican wearing a sombrero, need to know at least something about history. The same rationale that has empowered intolerance on the new left has empowered new bigotry on the right.
The failure of universities and high schools to teach history, philosophy, added to simplistic notions of deconstruction, opened the space to be colonised by the alt-right. Attacking someone for wearing a sombrero because they are not Mexican is a reflection of someone’s historical and philosophical naivety.
The racist attack on the black Santa is not different in rationale to Lionel Shriver being attacked as a white author wearing a sombrero and writing about ‘others’. The sombrero was originally from Mongolia and was brought into Hungary, Romania by Roma, then into Spain, and by the Spanish into Mexico. It is no more Mexican than chorizo or rice and beans, it literally means a shadow maker, sombre meaning shadow.
History is not static, culture is not static, art is not static, food-ways are not static and religions are not static. The most ancient representations of Buddha are found in the Hellenistic Greco-Bactrian kingdom (250 BC- 130 BC), in today’s Afghanistan, from which Hellenistic culture spread into the Indian subcontinent with the establishment of the Indo-Greek kingdom (180 BC-10 BC), which defined the cannon of Indian Buddhist and later Mogul Islamic art.
So, Santa Claus, St Basil, Father Xmas, can be any colour. If you obsess over cultural appropriation then I want him back as a tough and swarthy Greek.
Now have a kourambie and a melomakarono for me.