Jesus, Santa, and White People

Recently Megyn Kelly, on Fox News, made the argu­ment that both Jesus and Santa Claus were “really” white. Let’s put aside for the moment that fact that one is an entirely fic­tional char­ac­ter and the other is a char­ac­ter for whom very lit­tle his­tor­i­cal evi­dence exists.

She’s right about Santa Claus–he was mostly imag­ined by Thomas Nast as white partly, as I’ve argued before, because the mod­ern ver­sion of Santa Claus was closely linked to the Union cause in the Civil War, and the nation state that emerged as a result. It was a benev­o­lent and abun­dant white North Mast imag­ined through Santa Claus.

But what about Jesus? Was he white? I have no idea what peo­ple in Jerusalem looked like in the time of Jesus. But his­tor­i­cally, Amer­i­cans have found this a vex­ing problem.

The nat­u­ral­iza­tion law of 1795, Congress’s first state­ment on cit­i­zen­ship, stated that nat­u­ral­ized cit­i­zen­ship was only avail­able “to free white per­sons.” Accord­ing to this law a non-white per­son could never move here and become a cit­i­zen. A non-white per­son born in the US was a cit­i­zen, at least until the Dred Scott case, but to immi­grate and become a cit­i­zen you had to be a “free white per­son.” Although most amer­i­cans don’t know about it, this law was in force till the 1940s.

You can see the prob­lem right away though–what does “white per­sons” mean? Does it refer to “race,” or does it refer to skin color? In a series of cases, start­ing after the Civil War, state courts and even­tu­ally the Supreme Court tried to answer this ques­tion. Below are a very few exam­ples taken from the long list at Ian Haney-Lopez’s website


It’s an odd list–note that “Mex­i­cans” come up only once, and are declared white. Jews do not appear. Although there’s been plenty of anti-semitism, as far as I know Jews were always allowed to become nat­u­ral­ized cit­i­zens under the 1795 act. Although Arme­ni­ans and Afgha­nis were sus­pect, accord­ing to the law, ital­ians were not and never appear.

Peo­ple from the mid­dle east were a sig­nif­i­cant prob­lem though. Are Arabs white?  For exam­ple in 1914 a Syr­ian, George Dow, was rejected by South Carolina’s Dis­trict Court on  the ground that Syr­i­ans were “asi­at­ics” and not white, and not eli­gi­ble for cit­i­zen­ship. Dow appealed, argu­ing cor­rectly that Euro­pean Jews were admit­ted as cit­i­zens, and that Syr­i­ans and Jews were both Semitic peo­ples and thus white. He added that he came, lit­er­ally, from the land of Jesus Christ. Did the court think Jesus Christ was not white?

The judge responded that Euro­pean Jews were a reli­gion, not a race. And although he had his doubts about the white­ness of non-european jews,


 Judge smith sim­ply dodged the Jesus ques­tion, sug­gest­ing that what­ever Jesus may have looked like, he didn’t look like Mr. Dow.


He clearly implies that Jesus was racially dis­tinct from Syr­i­ans, although no one can doubt Jesus was a Jew, and the Jews have only become, accord­ing to the judge, euro­peanized since the begin­ning of the diaspora.

Dow’s case even­tu­ally reached the Supreme Court where the South Car­olina deci­sion was over­turned. The Supreme Court ruled, in Dow vs. United States (1915), that:


it seems to be true beyond ques­tion that the gen­er­ally received opin­ion was that the inhab­i­tants of a por­tion of Asia, includ­ing Syria, were to be classed as white per­sons. It is true that Syria and the con­tigu­ous coun­tries of Asia near the Mediter­ranean have been sub­jected to many changes in their inhab­i­tants through con­quest and other causes, and that the present inhab­i­tants have racial descent from many dif­fer­ent sources. Yet… they must be held to fall within the term “white per­sons” used in the statute.

The Court clearly seems unhappy about this. Syr­i­ans are dark and not white seem­ing, yet they are white, even though the court has its doubts

While it’s tempt­ing to argue that the most impor­tant aspect of Chris­tian­ity is its clear uni­ver­sal­ism, there have always been attempts to equate chris­tian­ity with white­ness and with white nation­al­ity. Before the Civil War, Poly­genists argued that the story of Adam and Eve was the story of white peo­ple: there must also be a black Adam and Eve and an Asian Adam and Eve, but the the Bible is the story of white peo­ple. That those peo­ple were Jew­ish, and/or racially “semitic” was always a prob­lem. It’s still a prob­lem: Jesus is still often depicted as an unam­bigu­ously white man  whose reli­gious gift is closely linked to the United States itself:

This is a white Jesus giv­ing the Constitution–as if he wrote it himself–to mostly white peo­ple. He’s backed by sym­bols of nation. This is pre­sum­ably the Jesus Megyn Kelly had in mind? This or the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, hollywood-lit, unam­bigu­ously white Jesus of Warner Sallman


As men­tioned here before, Thomas Nast began depict­ing Santa Claus in more or less his mod­ern form dur­ing the Civil War.  His Santa spread gifts to sol­diers in the field and to fam­i­lies reunited by fur­lough. Nast very closely linked Santa to the order, afflu­ence, and gen­eros­ity of the Union, and offered Santa’s ben­e­fits to those south­ern­ers will­ing to stop being naughty and start being nice.


From 1881. Notice the belt buckle and the sword


These images con­nect Santa Claus to nation, and specif­i­cally to the tri­umphant north. They have room for some black people–like McNaughton’s painting–but it’s over­whelm­ingly a vision of white people.

So Megyn Kelly is sort of cor­rect. “Santa Claus” in his mod­ern form has always been not just white, but a sym­bol of white nation­al­ism. And jesus has always been both a sym­bol of uni­ver­sal­ism and also a sym­bol of a very spe­cific white nationalism.



Note: The “racial pre­req­ui­site” cases cul­mi­nated in the early 1920s. In the case of Ozawa v US the Supreme Court decided that Japan­ese per­sons were white in color but not cau­casian, and could not become cit­i­zens. Then a few weeks later it heard the case of Bha­gat Singh Thind, a “high caste hindu,” and decided that Asian Indi­ans were cau­casian but not white, and could not become cit­i­zens. Ho Ho Ho.

One Comment

  • Catherine Carter wrote:

    Look­ing at the draw­ing of Santa Claus, I am reminded of the Ghost of Christ­mas Present illus­tra­tion from the early edi­tions of A Christ­mas Carol

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