Megyn Kelly, the Fox news anchor, stirred a bit of controversy this week when she described both Christ Jesus and Santa as racially white. Megyn Kelly later issued a statement calling her comments "tongue in cheek."
Kelly was responding to an essay by Aisha Harris at Slate.com entitled “Santa Claus Should Not Be a White Man Anymore.” Harris noted that growing up, "I asked my father what Santa really looked like. Was he brown, like us? Or was he really a white guy?"
Harris proposed that Santa should get a makeover, and be reborn as a more culturally neutral and universally appealing figure: a penguin.
All this would simply be tiny Christmas tempest in a media teapot if it were confined to the cable news shows and late-night comedians. After all, Santa Claus - white, black or penguin - is a fictional character.
But it seems even make-believe icons can churn up bigotry from the muddy riverbed of today's society.
Amid the Fox News-Slate debate over Santa this week, a high school teacher in Rio Rancho, N.M. told ninth-graders they could come to class dressed as Santa, elves, or reindeer. But when a black student came as Santa, he was told by the teacher, “Christopher, don’t you know Santa Clause is white? Why are you wearing that?” according to KOB Channel 4 in Albuquerque, N.M.
Had the teacher been brushing up on Santa's ethnicity courtesy of Megyn Kelly?
Amid the discussion about Santa, Kelly also raised the issue of the skin color of Jesus, a subject that has long been debated. Kelly said Wednesday: "Jesus was a white man, too. It's like we have, he's a historical figure that's a verifiable fact, as is Santa, I just want kids to know that. How do you revise it in the middle of the legacy in the story and change Santa from white to black?"
It's true that Jesus has been depicted in art and pop culture for centuries as tall, light-skinned, and long-haired. As The Atlantic noted:
The myth of a white Jesus is one with deep roots throughout Christian history. As early as the Middle Ages and particularly during the Renaissance, popular Western artists depicted Jesus as a white man, often with blue eyes and blondish hair. Perhaps fueled by some Biblical verses correlating lightness with purity and righteousness and darkness with sin and evil, these images sought to craft a sterile Son of God.
But as The Atlantic, and Christian scholars have noted for some time, the Bible says very little about Jesus Christ's physical appearance.
The New Testament describes him as a Jew, but says nothing about what Jesus looked like. And the Old Testament description of the coming Messiah (Isaiah 53:2) was none to flattering: "... he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him."
One might even infer from that fact that Jesus was of average height and build because when Judas betrayed Jesus, he had to kiss him on the cheek, so the soldiers would know which one was Jesus. Apparently, Judas couldn't just point and say, "the tall, blue-eyed guy over there."
Scholars have observed that the lack of a description of Jesus has served Christianity well. The Atlantic points out that "the silence of the Scriptures on the issue of Jesus’ skin color is critical to Christianity’s broad appeal with people of various ethnicities. In a world where race often divides communities and even churches, the Biblical depictions of God’s son positions him as one who can bridge those divides."
One of the more novel attempts at forging an accurate portrait of Jesus was undertaken by Richard Neave, a medical artist retired from The University of Manchester in England. Using forensic anthropology, Neave produced a sculpture of Jesus, which is a far cry from the Western stereotype, as Popular Mechanics notes:
For those accustomed to traditional Sunday school portraits of Jesus, the sculpture of the dark and swarthy Middle Eastern man that emerges from Neave's laboratory is a reminder of the roots of their faith. "The fact that he probably looked a great deal more like a darker-skinned Semite than westerners are used to seeing him pictured is a reminder of his universality," says Charles D. Hackett, director of Episcopal studies at the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. "And [it is] a reminder of our tendency to sinfully appropriate him in the service of our cultural values."
Megyn Fox issued a statement Friday about this mini-controversy, describing her statements as "tongue-in-cheek" and misunderstood. “The fact that an off-hand jest I made during a segment about whether Santa should be replaced by a penguin has now become a national firestorm says two things,” Kelly said. “Race is still an incredibly volatile issue in this country, and Fox News, and yours truly, are big targets for many people.”
And she said, the issue of Jesus' race is "far from settled."