Friday Five… Faces of Father Christmas


Spoiler alert – look away now kids – the grown-ups are talking!!!

With eye-watering prescience (see number five on last week’s ‘Christmas Presents for Archaeologists’) this weeks Friday Five tackles the most critical, pressing issue of the day and asks – What Would Colin Renfrew Do?

Lets start with this gem, blown over from across the Atlantic, where true-to-life Ron Burgundy and Veronica Corningstone news anchor titans have been debating Santa’s racial pedigree.

‘Santa just is White’ Megyn Kelly told a debating panel on Fox news, setting the tone for this weeks global news agenda.  A snowstorm in a teacup you say? Well, yes… and striking a pose in our brand new ‘What would Colin Renfrew Do’ T-Shirts, lets take a sleigh ride across the globe to look at what he, or in some places she, looks like elsewhere.

1. The Yule LadsIceland

Yule Lads

The Yule Lads are a mischievous band of thirteen creatures each equipped with a cunning skill. Ketkrokur, for example, uses a long hook to steal meat, and Gluggagaegir spies into people’s windows to find things to steal in the night. From December 12th, when not pilfering and prying, they can be found visiting small children filling their shoes with presents or rotten potatoes each night (depending on the day’s behaviour report).  For added menace, they’re also accompanied by the Yuletide cat – partial to gobbling up a naughty child now and again when the Felix runs low.

2. La Pere Fouettard – France

Pere Fouettard

La Pere Fouettard is the French ‘bad cop’ to St. Nicholas’ ‘good cop.’ The Whipping Father (as he translates) is said to have, with the help of his equally wicked wife, kidnapped three young men in the 1100’s and cooked them up into a tasty stew. Grisly indeed but with a happy ending: after being discovered by good old St. Nick the youngsters were brought back to life and La Pere Fouettard, realising the errors of his ways, repented and offered his eternal services as a constant reminder of what can be done to disobedient children.

3. La Befana – Italy

La Befana

La Befana, Italy’s favourite witch, has been drafted into the Christmas shift to ease some of Santa’s load over the busy period. Although she looks like a bit of a hag with her crooked nose, warts and broomstick, this witch has a kind heart. She gave the wise men food on their way to visit Jesus and she flies down the chimneys of good children to deliver them goodies come Christmas eve (though shy as she is she has been known to whack the odd child with her broomstick when spied upon.) She’s even got one over on Santa as she’s known to cover her tracks by having a bit of a tidy and sweeping the floor on her way out!

4. Sinterklaas – Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg


Sinterklaas bears much resemblance to our beloved Santa with his white hair, long beard and pensioner status. However he arrives a bit earlier in mid-November and, rather bizarrely, on a steamboat from Spain. Sinterklaas’ number 2 – Black Peter – has been cause for some controversy, originally cast in the role of a little black servant boy or slave, he has now been replaced by a strictly PC chimney sweep. Sinterklaas, however, is clearly not as time efficient as his brother as it takes him three weeks to deliver his presents – most likely because he only rides a single white-grey horse rather than Santa’s eight reindeers.

5. Krampus – Austria, Germany, and Hungary


In some countries the kind and Jolly Father Christmas is accompanied by this utterly terrifying beast called the Krampus. Serving as the resident heavy of Santa’s gang, Krampus doesn’t hesitate in beating naughty children if there are any on the list (and who would be naughty when you’ve got that to answer to?!). The legend on the Krampus dates back hundreds of years but the church (thankfully) stamped out most of its influence in the 1800s. This is why you should always be in bed for midnight on Christmas Eve, because you most certainly don’t want to bump into this guy in your living room.

The ‘Is Santa White’ debate – a brief synopsis

A recent article by African American Aisha Harris suggests Santa’s days with a face as white as the milk he refuels on should be drawing to an end. Though it wasn’t so much this article but its discussion by Megyn Kelly and colleagues on Fox News that cooked up a snowstorm. While sympathising with her point that giving Santa such an extreme makeover that he will be waddling for all eternity (Harris suggests he should be re-invented as a penguin) may seem a little OTT, we do realise that her views were not always presented in the most convincing manner. The phrases ‘Santa just is white’ and ‘Jesus was a white man too’ could be classed as particularly low points in her argument.

The discussion was critiqued (to put it nicely) by Jon Stewart who ridiculed the point given that because St Nicholas was white (according to their judgement – he was in fact Greek) Santa’s appearance can’t be changed because’ you can’t take facts and change them to try fit some sort of a political agenda.’ Despite him living in the North Pole, delivering presents to the whole world in one night, careering through the sky on a sleigh led by reindeers …

Kelly later fights back highlighting the fact that her speech was meant to be light-hearted. She stresses that her comment ‘Santa just is white’ is aimed at children who believe Santa is real, a sudden change in race or species wouldn’t sit well with most kids.

The public responses were mixed. The panel discussion by Fox News is generally agreed as simplistic and naïve (to the point of being quite embarrassing). However one comment by the public on Stewart’s video reads ‘I am a conscious black woman and I have no issue with Santa being portrayed as white. Father Christmas aka Santa is rooted in EUROPEAN pagan beliefs. Why would Santa be ANYTHING other than white? It is what it is…’ which also seems like a pretty good point to us.

It’s easy to appreciate both sides of the chocolate coin, though perhaps the most disappointing point is that the debate has to take place at all. It’s a shame that Santa’s colour is what we’re all talking about and it’s not his good will, generous nature and joy bringing that we could focus on instead. We can only wish for a day when it won’t be an issue what colour Santa is, because colour will not be a significant part of the way we think about a person or idea.

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Written by Aisling Serrant

An all round museum educator and enthusiast, Aisling's the Family Festival Coordinator at the Museum of London Docklands.

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