Showcasing the art and ritual of the African and African-diaspora religions

Doll of Black Santa

Catalog Number: F008


15.5" x 11.03" x 6.81"

393.7 mm x 280.05 mm x 172.99 mm

Materials: Cloth
Usage: N/A
Detailed Description of Significance:

What is Santa Claus’s race? The question probably has never crossed the mind of most Americans, for whom Santa Claus is a roly-poly man with pale skin, rosy cheeks, and a red suit. This image, now dominant in North America, was popularized in early-twentieth-century American advertising and further reinforced via illustrations done in the 1930s by Haddon Sundblom for Coca-Cola advertisements.

Nevertheless, Santa’s identity as a white man has never been a foregone conclusion. In some cases, whites have depicted Santa as black. White performers in blackface makeup were putting on racist performances as “black” Santa Clauses since the nineteenth century, and the figure of Zwarte Piet (Black Peter)—a blackface Santa’s helper who punishes misbehaving children—has been part of Dutch Christmas celebrations for generations. Figures known as Belsinkle were part of American Christmas celebrations from the early nineteenth century; such figures were usually performed by working-class men in suits of motley rags who wore masks and gave gifts to good children and threatened bad ones. Often such figures were performed in blackface.

Yet more neutral depictions of black Santas have also appeared in North America for more than a century. A 1910 magazine advertisement for Royal Baking Powder introduced Americans to a black Santa over two decades before Sundbom’s Coca-Cola ads hit the presses, for instance. Meanwhile, African Americans long have disputed or ignored the unstated assumption that Santa is white; for instance, black churches and community groups have allowed children to meet black Santas for decades. 

Nevertheless, positive images of African Americans were relatively rare in the U.S. until the 1960s. Then, as the Civil RIghts Movement took off, such images became symbols of racial equality, leading to an explosion of black visual productions in art galleries, museums, and commercial design. Meanwhile, black leaders fought for equal representation in American culture more broadly, pressuring American department stores to employ black Santas, for instance. Indeed, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference boycotted Federated Department Stores, prompting the chain to hire a black Santa for its stores in Cincinnati, Ohio. Other such attempts to offer black Santas to children were not as successful: A black man dressed as Santa Claus was threatened with arrest for marching alongside the NAACP float in a Bloomington, Illinois, Christmas parade. In 1963, Esquire magazine faced outrage from many white Americans when they put the African American heavyweight boxer Sonny Liston on their cover in a Santa hat.

Over the next few decades, images of black Santas became more commonplace as merchandisers devoted entire lines to black figurative art, selling images of black families as well as black versions of iconic figures, such as Jesus, angels, and Santa Claus. The manufacturers of such figures have often relied on advertisements in black-themed publications, such as Ebony, to sell their products, but today even mainstream retailers routinely offer such items. Nevertheless, real-life black Santa Clauses remain a rarity in shopping malls and department stores across North America.