Santa or the 3 Wise Guys?

In the United States, St. Nick is a national obsession. His likeness is big business; tree ornaments, droopy red hats, pajamas, sweaters and bath mats stamped with his image. Most recently he’s been turning up as  inflatable outdoor decorations! Why is Santa so central to winter giving traditions in the United States? Let’s talk a little history and figure out how we got here.

My sources agree that St. Nicolas actually existed and was a very generous man. A Bishop, he lived in what is now Turkey from approximately the year 280 to 343. He is famous for the gifts and dowries he gave the poor. He became a popular saint. In northern Europe, children receive(d) favors in their shoes on his feast day, December 6th. In North America, Dutch, German and English culture brought the custom of presents from St. Nicolas to the land now known as the United States. Santa Claus comes from Sinterklass, a contraction of the words Sint Nikolaas, Dutch for St. Nicolas.

Washington Irving wrote about jolly St. Nicolas in 1809, and in 1823 a writer (dispute about which one) published “The Night Before Christmas.” In 1863 Thomas Nast published widely viewed drawings of Santa Claus in Harper’s Weekly. Santa gained in popularity from then on. Do other cultures celebrate Christmas differently? See Lori Tharps blog for a great post on the subject. See especially her Three Reasons Why We Need The Kings.

In her essay, Lori talks about Christmas in Spain and much of Latin America. In Spain, Argentina, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Paraguay and Uruguay, the Three Wise Men (Los Tres Reyes Magos) bring children gifts on January 6th. Jesus gets his own birthday, and kids can leave the camels a box of hay in the New Year. In Puerto Rico, kids spend hours decorating a special box to hold the grass or hay for the camels, so they will get more candy. In Spain, kids put their shoes out to receive the presents. I’m intrigued by this custom.

I was fortunate enough to know a wonderful man from Cuba as a child, Carlos Espada. He and his US-born wife threw a Three Kings Day party every January 6th as I grew up.  I loved that party. The Espadas were wonderfully generous in the toys they gave us. In our early days in Madison, friends and I threw a Tres Reyes party, with a “white elephant” silly exchange.

Reindeer vs. Camel 12:26:18
Reindeer vs. Camel, Drawing by Rebecca Cuningham

As a kid, I loved Santa, that jolly old elf. As an adult, I’m troubled that his depiction favors one race to the exclusion of others. Does reclaiming the original story portraying regal benefactors of several races matter? I believe it does. Which has more true Christmas spirit and fits the season better, Santa or the Three Kings? The Kings are part of the birthday boy’s official story. Does white Santa have too little melanin for a multicultural nation? Given the violent history of race relations in the United States, does Santa feel like an intrusion on celebrations in homes of people of color? Would wise kings from India, Asia and Africa feel friendlier as the magnanimous source of good fortune? What are your opinions?

Could the US modify our December consumer fest in favor of waiting until January? I’m afraid people would double the outlay of cash, rather than change allegiances to a different date. We’d have Christmas and Three Kings Day! I’m sure the shops would be thrilled. I believe transformation is challenging. I don’t expect the US to re-evaluate and alter our two century long Santa myth overnight. But I think asking questions and considering other options feels good and important. Here at our house, Santa arrived early Tuesday morning. We will also contribute presents to a Three Kings Day party we’ll attend at a local Latino cultural center early next month.

What traditions matter to you?

My apologies to readers of other faiths. (Isn’t Christmas over yet?!?) You must be ready to lay this subject to rest for the year!

Gracias for reading Fake Flamenco! Olé! -Rebecca

Para leer este ensayo en español, haz un clic en Papá Noel o Los Tres Reyes Magos.

Reindeer vs. Camels 12:26:18
Santa vs. the Three Kings, drawing by Rebecca Cuningham


Rebecca Cuningham

7 thoughts on “Santa or the 3 Wise Guys?

  1. Having a multi-cultural celebration is better than white Santa, but it will never fly. Of course, we also have our very non-Jewish standard white Jesus to go with that white (non-Turkish) Santa….

    Liked by 2 people

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