A Black man with a white beard and a soft pot-belly enters your home through the chimney in the middle of the night. What happens next?
Lexi Mellish-Mingo // Contributor
John Pachkowsky // Illustration
Santa Claus is an old white man with a juicy belly and a habit of break and entering. Children love him because he gives them gifts and the parents do too. He’s a strange and special kind of weapon used to control children and uphold white patriarchy.
It’s not like we haven’t seen this archetype before. Every day, greedy developers exploit the land and marginalized people, while romanticized leaders approve pipelines and deny Indigenous communities access to clean drinking water. When it comes to the beloved Santa, there’s a slight plot twist. The story of this old white man is all about kindness and love for all children of the world.
The holiday season is once again over-flowing with gluttony and consumerism, increasingly so with the pervasiveness of online shopping and Amazon. As we enter the second wave of COVID-19, spreading holiday cheer in the warmth of others’ company is an idea that currently exists only as a memory. People are shutting their homes to loved ones—but somehow Santa still slides through.
Despite the pandemic, as of Nov. 15, Santa and his elves have been setting up shop in malls across North America. It’s been 200 years since the Mall Santa was born, and he continues to be the torchbearer of this tradition. There’s no stopping Santa from spreading cheer this year.
“People think that being Santa Claus is just putting on your red suit and going to an event, but it’s more than that,” said head elf Rozmin Watson, co-founder of Hire a Santa. Hire a Santa offers Santa School in the lower mainland every year at the end of September. Due to COVID-19, Santa School was moved online this year. “Every few years, something different comes up and we have to be adaptable to it,” Rozmin explained.
In past years, the North Shore Santa school has taught santas-in-training how to embody the spirit of Santa Claus and learn the tricks of the trade. They learn how to walk, talk, and “ho-ho-ho” in a century-old octave. Santas-to-be have the opportunity to get their beard shaped, receive make-up tips and a professional headshot before graduating into the holiday season. Most importantly, Santas learn how to talk to children and their parents to ensure the environment feels safe and welcoming.
Santa Bob called before his shift at the Abbotsford Cabelas. His voice sounded warm and familiar, like a sugar-coated memory. He seemed genuinely excited to talk about his personal Santa journey. Since his retirement, Santa Bob has been a full-time seasonal Santa. Santa Bob has been well trained in the art of igniting the inner child, which he credits to the North Shore Santa School. Like the rest of us, Santa isn’t perfect. Yet, he is a character of importance for children around the western world and beyond. How his story is told directly affects future generations.
“Having a job such as Santa, it’s not all about making money. If your heart’s not in the right place, it’s worrisome,” said Rozmin. Over the phone, Santa Bob reflects on past experiences of children confiding in him, asking for the kind of things he couldn’t give them. “It’s not all laughs and giggles. There’s been times where I’ve shed tears with children,” Santa Bob explains. “Most of the time, it’s wonderful, but there are those one-offs that take your breath away. Sometimes you’ve got to take a few deep breaths to recompose yourself,” he says.
When asked about the pandemic’s impact on photos with Santa, Santa Bob says safety measures are being taken, including sitting behind a plexiglass wall. “It’s positioned on a bench so that people can sit with the plexiglass behind them. I’m behind the plexiglass, so there’s proper social and physical distancing happening. It’s harder to hear the children at this point because of the plexiglass, but we’re making it work.” Although there will be no sitting on Santa’s knee, the line of communication between Santa and the children has yet to be severed.
COVID-19 is not the only major change that has had a global impact on the western world in the last year. The Land Back movement continues to pressure colonial governments across Turtle Island and the Black Lives Matter movement sustains through the fight for Black liberation and the defunding of the police. Santa was not present on the front lines, despite the abundance of Black and Brown children and youth fighting for their liberation. As the saint of all children, it’s a part of his job to hold compassion for them deep in his heart. Santa’s survival in future generation’s minds should depend on the transformation of his narrative in a world that is fractured by inequity and violence.
“Unfortunately, I haven’t seen many people of colour as Santa in BC, but I would absolutely love to see more Santa’s of Colour come in,” says Santa Bob. He seems genuinely concerned about the children who are unable to speak to Santa due to language barriers. Rozmin confirms that there aren’t many people of colour showing interest in the gig. “I haven’t received many resumes from people of colour, and if I do, I would not know on paper who they are. It wouldn’t make a difference to us because we have a wide range of different groups of people,” she says.
Although it isn’t common in Vancouver, Rozmin explains, “Ontario [is] a bigger province, they do have all kinds of Santas. In certain areas, when you go to their malls, they have their own ethnicity of Santas that is in their neighbourhood.” Despite the lack of non-white Santa Clauses at Hire a Santa, Santa Bob asserts that “it doesn’t matter what colour you are or what religion you are, Santa Claus is Santa Claus.”
With that, Santa Bob is on to something. Although the conversation ended there, it felt like a good start—but it isn’t enough. The western tradition of Santa Claus is taking its time adapting to change. Santas of colour should not have to be considered niche Santas, accepted exclusively in their own communities. Instead, the narrative continues to divert its attention from the systemic illusion it creates, all for the sake of fantasy.
If there is a future for Santa Claus, it must be a story of a shapeshifter. One where our imaginations continue to grow, where we normalize the idea of BI+POC, transgender, non-binary and disabled folks embodying saints. When we are allied to “tradition,” we wear excuses like weapons of exceptional white patriarchy. For a tradition to survive, it must transcend.
Despite the political realities of 2020, this disjointed civilization is just as eager to delve into a tale of patriarchal fiction because “it’s tradition.” There is no reason (yet) to boycott Santa Claus, but there is space for us to reflect on what parts of Santa we choose to carry forward and what we should leave behind. “Santa loves everybody equally, and everybody deserves to be loved equally,” preaches Santa Bob. If Santa is going to sleigh ride into the horizon with us, we all have a lot to learn.
This holiday season,
we want you to be a shapeshifter.