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Does Santa's Race Matter to Kids?

Aired December 16, 2013 - 23:00   ET


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: It's 11:00 in the east. Do you know where your news is? I'm Don Lemon. This is "THE 11TH HOUR," what you'll be talking about tomorrow and what everyone will be talking about tomorrow and for the next week or so, is Santa Claus. St. Nick, Kris Kringle, that jolly old elf, whatever you want to call him. Another news anchor declared last week Santa is white. We'll get into that.

But first, I want to warn all the parents out there, I'm about to say something that's for adult ears only. Take a second now and send your kids out of the room.

The real Santa is here. Which one is he?


LEMON: That was a pretty awesome moment.

Let me start out by saying the one thing we all agree on is Santa is not real. Everybody clear on that? He's not real. I hate to break it to you but neither are the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Frosty the Snowman -- not real. Nobody is questioning their race yet. Yet.

Santa is a symbol of a magical time of year. So how did we end up arguing about the race of an imaginary figure?

Martin Savidge, help me, please.


MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Forget the weather on Christmas. According to FOX News anchor, Megyn Kelly, it's Santa who should always be white.

MEGYN KELLY, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: Yet another person claiming it is racist to be a white Santa. And by the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white. But this person is just arguing that maybe we should also have a black Santa.

MARTIN: That person Kelly is referring to is Aisha Harris, who wrote this blog for "Slate." In it, she argues that times have changed and so should Santa's image. She suggested making him a penguin. Harris wrote, "For one thing, making Santa Claus an animal instead of an old white male could spare millions of non-white kids the insecurity and shame that I remember from childhood." She spoke on CNN's "Reliable Sources."

AISHA HARRIS, CORRESPONDENT, SLATE: For kids, I think it's important they don't have to feel necessarily bogged down that Santa is always white.

MARTIN: But it was Kelly's declarative that Santa is white that captured the attention of late-night television.



You've heard of Secret Santa. Well, here's a secret for you. I'm black as hell.


JON STEWART, HOST, THE DAILY SHOW: Of course, the real St. Nicholas is from the world that is now part of Turkey. And according to forensic scientists who study research, originally commissioned by the Vatican, he probably looked something like this.


SAVIDGE (on camera): According to the St. Nicholas Center, which is dedicated to the truth of Santa Claus, Nicholas was Greek. He lived about 1700 hundred years ago in an area that is now southern Turkey.

(voice-over): Kelly has since said her Santa comment was tongue in cheek and part of a light-hearted debate that now has been blown way out of proportion.

FOX: For me, 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, race is a volatile issue in this country, and FOX News and yours truly are big targets.

SAVIDGE: Not quite an apology but it just might keep her off the naughty list.

For "THE 11TH HOUR," Martin Savage, CNN.


LEMON: The debate over Santa is red-hot this Christmas. Here to talk about is Reza Aslan, the author of "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth"; and Amy Holmes, anchor of The Hot List at "The Blaze"; and Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League.

Bill, I'm going to start with you, but first, I want to play Megyn's response to her initial comments. This was two days after she made them.


FOX: Well, this would be funny if it was not so telling about our society, in particular, the knee-jerk instinct by so many to race bait and to assume the worst in people.


LEMON: Bill, you think she has a point, but you don't think she needed to apologize. You say that Santa is white?

BILL DONAHUE, PRESIDENT, THE CATHOLIC LEAGUE: Yeah. There is no question about it. He is St. Nick. St. Nick was Greek. The last time I checked, Greeks weren't black.

It is much ado about nothing. I've been doing CNN for 25 years and FOX since 1996 and I never met a racist either at FOX or CNN in my life. And God knows that Megyn Kelly doesn't have a racist bone in her body. People need to lighten up. It's Christmas time. Maybe some of these people need to have a beer or something --


LEMON: Hang on. Hang on. I don't disagree with you. I don't think anyone is calling Megyn racist. Certainly, no one here on CNN is calling her racist. And none of my guests so far have called Megyn racist. The controversy was about emphatically saying that Santa Claus is white, Jesus is white. I think that's where people take umbrage. No one is calling Megyn Kelly a racist.

DONAHUE: Don, let me ask you this. For 87 years, Macy's has had a Thanksgiving Day Parade. They end it every year for 87 years with a white guy. I used to work in Spanish Harlem. The kids there were Puerto Rican and black. Wonderful kids. We had black Santa Claus. We had a Puerto Rican Santa Claus. I'm sure Megyn Kelly doesn't object to that. Again, people just need to lighten up.

LEMON: Amy, do you think he has a point.


Listen, I think he has a point. And what I said before is the traditional depiction of Santa Claus, the popular depiction of Santa Claus is a white guy.

AMY HOLMES, HOST, THE HOST LIST, THE BLAZE: Indeed. And Santa Claus is also fictional. And for all the children who might be watching this show at 11:00 at night, it is well past your bedtime. You deserve to know that traditionally Santa has also been an obese, alcoholic elf who lives at the North Pole, who had very questionable labor practices, not to mention animal cruelty, lashing his poor reindeer through the sky.


LEMON: Oh, my gosh, Amy.


HOLMES: This is ridiculous that we are even having this debate.


If you live in Hawaii, Santa Claus has a tan. And as my mom told me last week about all of this, everyone knows that Santa is your parents. Whatever race they are is the race that Santa is. He is a fictional character that we should be able to embrace multiculturally.

LEMON: Reza, listen, at first, I thought, I can't believe I'm having this conversation about what color Santa is. And as I have been doing this story, people are saying, Don, we need to come to a consensus as a society as to what color Santa Claus is. You may think it is a silly argument. I'm not sure. Bill Donahue said its silly, people need to lighten up. But I think this says a lot about our society and our culture.

REZA ASLAN, AUTHOR: That, I'm absolutely in agreement with you on. I mean, white is more than just a color. Let's be honest with you. I don't think many Greek people would be white, insofar as the rosy cheeked Santa that we are used to. White has more to do with sociological, economic, cultural considerations that go beyond the color of your skin. I think that is what Megyn Kelly was really talking about.

Look, it's true that for 75 years the Santa at the Macy's Day Parade has been white. But that is because for 75 years, we were majority white. We are now no longer going to be majority white in this country.


HOLMES: Hold on. Hold on.


HOLMES: Because the original "Slate" article, to me, was as equally silly. The original author was asserting that this fictional, mythological character --

LEMON: Should be a penguin.

HOLMES: -- was white and it ought to be a penguin so it can be more inclusive. I contend to you that Santa Claus is whoever you wish him to be.

ASLAN: Right.

HOLMES: There are Jewish Santa Clauses to Jewish families that celebrate Christmas. And that all of this is much ado about nothing. And as I mentioned, Santa Claus, from the 1800s, was also a smoker, a drinker --


HOLMES: -- and a binge, emotional eater.


LEMON: What did Santa Claus ever do to you, Amy Holmes? What did Santa Clause ever do to you?


HOLMES: Santa Claus was very good to me. So when we discover that Santa Claus doesn't exist, are we now supposed to have this crippling distrust of older white men with beards? I mean, this is ridiculous.

LEMON: Listen, there is -- but I don't think it's ridiculous. I don't think we should say it's ridiculous because, obviously, we are talking about it. It has touched a nerve in America. It struck a cord with a lot of people. And to say that -- the original article was trying to say, listen, even little black kids need to be reaffirmed that Santa -- that they can be like Santa or that Santa could be like them. Look at the little kid who went to school in New Mexico and told he couldn't be Santa because Santa is white. That affects kids' self esteem.

HOLMES: That teacher was an idiot and he was --


HOLMES: That teacher was an idiot.


LEMON: Go ahead, Bill.

DONAHUE: We're making huge leaps here. I mean, before you are hearing the other guests saying, in a serious tone, that maybe Megyn had some other kind of an agenda is what he is applying.

Again, you need to lighten up, sir.

There is nothing wrong with Megyn Kelly. She is having good fun, as we are right now. But as soon as you get very serious, that's when you lose most Americans. Most Americans regard anyone taking this too seriously as being the problem, not Megyn.

LEMON: I think what people are taking it -- seriously, not Megyn. Listen, I get -- you think people are demonizing Megyn Kelly. No one is demonizing Megyn Kelly. I didn't hear the guests demonize Megyn Kelly. I think what people are saying is white, as a default in this country, when the demographics of our country are changing so rapidly. I think that's the issue.

DONAHUE: Well, we have a president that is half white and he's half black.


DONAHUE: So I guess everybody should be happy.

LEMON: I think the president is black when most people see him.


DONAHUE: His mother was white.


LEMON: I understand that. The world sees him as a black man. When you see the president on the street, you don't go, oh, your mom must have been white. You see him as a black person. I think that is a ridiculous argument.


LEMON: My grandmother is white. People see me as black. They don't go, oh, Don, you are one-quarter white. It's not that way.


DONAHUE: And guess what? I lot of white people don't identify themselves as white. I'm an Irishman. All right? I don't identify as white.

LEMON: Reza, go ahead. I'll give you -- since you didn't get a chance to talk a lot.


ASLAN: Well, you are right, by the way. I think --

LEMON: How do you know that?

ASLAN: -- the other issue that I found to be just as interesting is Megyn Kelly's assertion that Jesus is white. And I'm not bringing this up because --


LEMON: Do not be give my next segment away.



LEMON: Reza, we're going to talk about that soon.

So thanks to you guys. Stand by. We'll talk a little bit more.

If you think --

ASLAN: All right, I'll come back to you.

LEMON: All right. If you think this black Santa is controversial, what about Jesus? We're going to talk about that in a minute. Reza gave it away. But this whole "Santa is black" thing is definitely not --I want you to listen to is this song. I grew up listening to it. This is from my childhood. Every Christmas we played this and we heard it on the radio. It's Teddy Van and his daughter, Achem (ph), singing "Santa Claus is a Black Man," and it's back in 1973.



LEMON: I'm Don Lemon. This is "THE 11TH HOUR." You can follow up on Twitter @the11thhour.

Santa is one thing, but what about Jesus. Was Jesus white?

Back with me is Reza Aslan, the author of "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth; Amy Holmes, the anchor of The Hot List at "The Blaze"; and Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League.

Reza, I'll start with you.

You are a Biblical scholar and have written about the history of Jesus Christ, the origins of Jesus Christ. You believe that he was emphatically not white?

ASLAN: Jesus was a Galilean Jew so he was Mediterranean. He was Middle Eastern. He had brown skin, olive skin. He was probably hairy, had a larger nose. He was Semitic. It's unquestionable that he was not white.

But the point I was making earlier was that what Megyn Kelly is talking about is Jesus, the Christ. The fact is the Christ is white as far as Megyn Kelly is concerned. For 2000 years, the Christ has been whatever you want him to be. He's been an infinitely malleable character. When you go to China, the Christ is Chinese. When you go to parts of Africa, the Christ is African. When you go to India, I have seen pictures of Jesus in India in which Christ is blue, as though he is a Hindu god. That's because, as a character, as a spiritual character, he has always fit himself into whatever a particular community of faith wants him to be. So if you are a white suburban American, then your Christ is white and suburban and American. But the Jesus of history was most definitely not white.

LEMON: So listen, Bill, same thing. When I say the popular depiction of Jesus is a white guy with the beard, who looks like he is crunching granola. I put that on social media and everybody went crazy. I said look who is selling Christmas trees in my neighborhood. There was a guy who happened to be a carpenter. His name was Michael. He has a beard. Everybody said, "Don, Jesus is not white. Jesus is not white." Is Jesus white, Bill Donahue?

DONAHUE: Jesus transcends color. I'll agree with you on. That so why -- this is a true multicultural moment. But let's face it the great artists through out history did not turn him into a Chinese person, did they? If you take a look at Hollywood, bring --


ASLAN: European artists. So --


LEMON: We're talking about European artists.

DONAHUE: -- as being white. So, again --


ASLAN: Yeah, in American movies.

LEMON: Again, you're getting too serious. You are getting too serious on this. If you want him to be black or Chinese or Puerto Rican, that's your business, but he has been depicted traditionally as being white.

LEMON: Amy, he says we're being too serious. I was making a joke about this guy. Jesus happens to be selling Christmas trees in my neighborhood, a light moment that people really took offense to, and they -- I got some very serious responses.

HOLMES: When it comes to religion, it is very personal. I take Reza's point that Jesus, as a pathway to personal salvation, oftentimes reflects the culture that is worshipping him. If you look at Russian art, Jesus looks Russian. If you look at Italian art, Jesus looks Italian. If you look at "Jesus Christ, Superstar," he looks like a '70s hippy. He reflects the cultural values at the time.

But as a point of historical fact -- I'm not an anthropologist, I'm not a Biblical scholar, nor have I studied his DNA, but I have stood on the hill overlooking Bethlehem where he is reported to have been born, historically thought so. And that's in the Middle East, not in Scandinavia.

LEMON: Yeah.

Bill, listen, president of the Catholic League, right?


LEMON: You believe in the doctrine of the Bible. Reza is saying, as a scholar, and most scholars are saying that Jesus is not white. Do you not believe that? You're saying -- I feel like I let you off easy. You said he's every person. But if you are talking about historical fact, what do you believe?

DONAHUE: You know the term, oh, Jesus? That's what he is. He is Irish. He is, oh, Jesus. All right? Look, again, Jesus transcends color. We know he was a man. That much we can be certain of. Though, I imagine someone will be upset about that, too. Maybe when we have Martin Luther King Day, he will be a white guy. This idea that everybody has to be included is meritless.


LEMON: Hang on. Hang on.

You seem to be contradicting yourself because you are saying that --


LEMON: -- you know that Martin Luther King Jr was not a white guy. He is a black man.


LEMON: Scholars are telling you that Jesus is not a white man, but you won't concede that point?

DONAHUE: I'm saying that Hollywood has depicted him that way and the great artists have for hundreds of years. If you have a problem, take it up with them.

LEMON: All right. That's a good point.


ASLAN: Yeah. Hold on. These are -- these are -- Hollywood, in American movies, have made him look American, and European artists made him look European. So that's exactly the point that I was making. But there is something larger here that connects Megyn Kelly's comments about Jesus and Santa.

DONAHUE: How did Megyn get into this again?

ASLAN: That is this. That she saying and what a lot of people mean when they say Santa or Jesus is white is that Santa or Jesus is mine.


DONAHUE: Let me ask you something? How would you know what Megyn Kelly thinks?

LEMON: Let him finish.

DONAHUE: How do you know about Megyn Kelly's motive? How do you know that?

ASLAN: What I'm saying --

(CROSSTALK) DONAHUE: You just did --


LEMON: Let him answer, Bill. Let him answer.

ASLAN: Actually, you just answered the question. What I'm saying is that in the very terminology of the way that we define these icons, whether they be spiritual icons like Jesus or cultural icons like Santa, is it's deeply engrained in our sense of identity. It's about who we ourselves are. So we define these icons in the way we define ourselves. So you want your Jesus or your Santa to look just like you, to feel just like you.

HOLMES: No. Can I jump in here?


LEMON: -- Bill.

Got to run, Amy. Quickly.

HOLMES: I just thought Santa was giving me free stuff. And if anything, my biggest contention is that he might be a liberal.



So, listen, Santa and Jesus, people asking them for things all the time and they think they're going to give them gifts. So there you go.


I think Reza has a point when he says that.

It's a time of year where you ask for things from both of them. And you all three have been naughty. So don't expect any gifts from Santa.


HOLMES: A lump of coal.

LEMON: Thank you very much. A lump of coal.

And when we come right back, who better to settle the Santa question than Santa himself? Actually, four Santas. It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

SANTA CLAUS: Ho-ho-ho.


LEMON: I'm Don Lemon. This is "THE 11TH HOUR." We went out on the stories to ask the experts what they think about this Santa controversy.


LEMON: Do you know what Santa looks like?

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: Yes. A really, really big beard that's white. And white hair. And he has -- he has, white and red clothes.

LEMON: Do you think of him in terms of what or race he is? Besides he has a white beard.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: I think he can be anything to anyone.

LEMON: Why do you say that?

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: Because everybody has a different visualization of Santa.

LEMON: From the mouths of babes.

You're awesome. Thank you.


LEMON: Give me a hug.

Merry Christmas.




LEMON: She was very sweet.

And we thought we would go directly to the big man for comment. We have more than we bargained for. With me tonight, exclusively, not one or two or three, but four Santas.


LEMON: One black, one Latino and one Filipino.

OK, so, Latino Santa, raise your hand. Where are you?

LATINO SANTA: Right here.

LEMON: Latino Santa, we spent a lot of time debating white versus black Santas. We haven't heard from you. What do you have to say?

LATINO SANTA: It doesn't matter what Santa looks like. People, kids enjoy Santa overall. They don't care. Santa could be Hispanic, African-American, Filipino. They love Santa. And that's what should matter.

LEMON: All right.

Filipino Santa, where are you? Raise your hand.


LEMON: We have heard even less from you. What do you have to say for yourself?

FILIPINO SANTA: When kids see me, they love me. They don't say -- they don't think of me, why is he Asian or why is he short? They love me. It doesn't matter if you are from Africa, and you believe in an Asian Santa Claus, or it doesn't matter if you're an Asian and you believe in a white Santa Claus, you know? It matters what Santa Claus does. It gives happiness and joy to kids. Doesn't matter about the race. Doesn't matter --

LEMON: Here's the thing. You're a good dancer. So I think that supersedes anything.


When people say -- you are like the hip-hop Santa Claus.

Now to black Santa.

Where's the brother?

BLACK SANTA: I'm right here.

LEMON: All right. Santa, so we have heard a song earlier declaring that Santa Claus is a black man. I have always known that, at least at my house. Do you think that most people know that?

BLACK SANTA: No. Most people have their own beliefs of Santa. Like they said, Santa could be anyone. It's based on you.

LEMON: So when you go out and you're dealing with kids, does it matter that you are a black Santa? You're not a white Santa.

BLACK SANTA: No, it doesn't matter. They have no discretion.

LEMON: So white Santa. Last but not least.


WHITE SANTA: I feel left out.


LEMON: Listen, you hog everything, the history books and all that. Does Santa's ethnicity even matter to kids, do you think?

WHITE SANTA: Unfortunately, it depends on the parents. But the kids, in general, will meet a Santa Claus, and because they have such love, they will embrace him no matter his race. But there are types where I have been --


LEMON: We are having a little trouble.

Is that Santa Claus' mic? Or is that my ear piece?

WHITE SANTA: Can you hear me now?

LEMON: That's my ear piece. Sorry. I think my ear piece is going out.

Do you guys ever have any negative experiences, especially the Santas who are not white, with kids or do kids mostly love you guys?

FILIPINO SANTA: They just love us. Because I'm a hip-hop dancer, they love me.

WHITE SANTA: I find, if there is ever a problem, it comes from the parents, not the children.

LEMON: So time now for the moment of truth, OK? Are you ready for this?


LEMON: Will the real Santa Claus please raise your hand?



There we go. That's a real Santa Claus.

I told the viewers tonight we would come to a consensus about who Santa Claus is, what ethnicity, what color he is. There you go. Look, put the Santas back up. Santa is white. Santa is black. Santa is Latino. Santa is Asian. And there is even a Jewish Santa Claus in the NEWSROOM. And Santa Claus is even a CNN anchorman. So there you go.

Thank you, Santa. I appreciate it.


WHITE SANTA: Merry Christmas. Ho-ho-ho.


LEMON: So please don't listen to the next part. I don't want to get coal in my stocking. Tomorrow, on "THE 11TH HOUR," we will be talking about words specifically. Are there some words you can't say? Is the "N" word ever OK? And who decided?

That's it for me tonight. Thank you so much for joining us.

Brooke Baldwin and "In Case You Missed It" starts right now.