At Aunty Kamla's children's Christmas party I was pleased to see Santa in an interracial marriage. When the time came to dish out the presents, in came a white Santa Claus and a black Mrs Santa on their sleigh.
Weeks before I had been wondering whether Santa (or Father Christmas as we Brits call him) would be white or black in the Caribbean. So my question had been half answered at Kammy's Yuletide bash.
Then, last week, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly presented a satellite link-up news piece with guests debating an article written by African-American blogger Aisha Harris titled Santa Claus Should Not Be A White Man Anymore.
"Santa just IS white. Santa is what he is," said Kelly without a trace of irony. Later she said, matter-of-factly, "Jesus was a white man too," just to really stamp the seal of Christian neo-Conservative racist white America onto the design patent of folkloric creations and religious disciples.
"Santa Claus is imaginary!" clamoured millions of appalled voices. But the story is more interesting than that and reveals much about how history (real or imagined) is constructed and by whom. Santa Claus is of course based on Saint Nicholas, a real man who lived in Turkey in the 3rd and 4th century AD. In the picture accompanying this column a much younger me is standing inside the tomb of St Nicholas (also known as Nikolaos of Myra) in a place called Lycia in Antalya, southern Turkey. The picture was taken in 2001, just weeks after the 9/11 attacks. I was 21 and it was my first solo overseas adventure. I look skinny and scantily-clad, unlike Father Christmas who is fat, rosycheeked and wrapped up warm to keep out the cold.
The real Nikolaos of Myra, a generous man who would leave gifts and money for people who deserved it for their hard work or good behaviour, was Greek. He would not have been fat or worn warm clothes (it's hot in Antalya) and he probably wouldn't have looked white, not in the Anglo- Saxon sense.
By the 19th century, the Dutch had created Santa Claus (or Sinterklaas) a white European figure assisted by a black boy called Zwarte Piet ("Black Pete") who is seen to this day in Dutch Christmas celebrations where white people cover their faces in black makeup to play this bizarre, racist character. It's just one example of the Europeanisation, or even Anglicisation, of world history. A white Santa is more palatable (and marketable) than a Greek one.
Another example is Jesus. He hailed from Nazareth in the north of Israel (a city known as the "Arab capital of Israel"), Christ was born a Jew and would surely have looked like a modern-day native of the Middle East, somewhere between Mediterranean and brown.
In renaissance art in the 14th17th centuries, Jesus was depicted not just as white but as a redhead (ginger in British parlance.) In Raphael's Madonna of the Meadow the infant Jesus is being given a cross by the infant St John the Baptist. Both of them with porcelain-white skin and fair red hair, like the Virgin Mary who
steadies Jesus with her hands. The theme is repeated in Da Vinci's The Last Supper and in works by Durer, Messina, Mantegna, Botticelli and many other artists of the period. This is strange, because the earliest known depiction of Christ from the 6th century in St Catherine's Monastery on Mt Sinai in Egypt shows a dark-haired, dark bearded man with features one might describe as Jewish or Arab.
"The discussion over Jesus's race is ridiculous," a Christian friend told me, "it doesn't matter. And if you're a believer you believe Jesus is the son of God. There was no sperm involved!"
Her point is that Jesus, Christians believe, was immaculately conceived so applying genetics or ethnicity to him is irrelevant. He can be any race, just as Aisha Harris's father used to tell her, "Santa is every colour. Whatever house he visits, jolly old St Nicholas magically turns into the likeness of the family that lived there."
But for anchors on Fox News and the millions of white Christians across the Bible Belt and Midwest of the United States, Jesus's colour clearly is relevant, and so is Santa's. So when my friend told me that all you need is faith in Jesus, not analysis of his biology, I argued that the Christian religion would be very different if Jesus, historically and contemporarily, were depicted as a black man or an Arab, an Indian or a Chinese man. Would the Anglo-Saxon world still have adopted him as the Messiah, accepted him as the son of God and worshipped him as the saviour? People like Megyn Kelly would surely not.
And what if Jesus had been born a woman? Would she have been worshipped to the same extent? And if Jesus's father were conceptualised as a woman rather than the accepted notion of God as a man, would the world be a different place today or would society have rewritten her into a him and given her a beard, like God and Santa have beards?
"You're the first black Santa Claus, thank heavens you came," riffs Prince Buster in the outro to his 1967 nonsense-verse song Earthquake. But in Ethiopia, Haiti and other black countries, Santa and Jesus are commonly depicted as black.
It goes to show these figures can be whoever you want them to be.
Perhaps at next year's party Aunty Kams herself will dress up as Santa and hand out gifts to the people. It's not so far-fetched. After all, by then the general election will be just around the corner. Ho ho ho.