Ho ho, it seems we're spending this Christmastime deciding what color skin Santa Claus is allowed to have. Gather 'round the Yule log on your smart phones, younglings, and watch the old bigots on the permanent Naughty List try to invent another make-believe crisis of complexion. What race is Santa Claus? Well, if they really want to know then let's go ahead and tell them: Santa Claus is a magical human of African descent.
How do I know this? Because I am an expert on Christmas, and also because all humans are of African descent, even that blonde Fox News host with such strong opinions about the tint of the skin beneath Santa's red suit.
Santa Claus always appears in the precise cultural form expected by every child in the world, just as Santa can speak any language and soothe any watchdog. But at his root, Mr. Claus is an ageless, timeless black man of exceptional kindness, joy, forgiveness, generosity, and love.
He did not always live at the North Pole. Over seven decades, during America's toughest times, the historical record suggests that Santa lived among us. We called him Louis Armstrong, or "Satchmo"—likely a Creole form of "Santa." Satchmo gave his genius and his festive joy to his own nation, and tirelessly spread that cheer around the whole wide world as an official American ambassador of good will and good music. During this life of performance and traveling the globe and living in New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, Louis Armstrong was the most beloved human on the planet. In most jurisdictions, that is the legal definition of Santa Claus.
The way to prove someone is really Santa Claus is simple: If children immediately love the man, it's Santa. So, find a nearby child and show them a clip of Louis Armstrong doing his thing. Ask if this seems like the kind of person who could bring Christmas happiness to kids everywhere.
The first Christmas song I remember is Louis Armstrong's "Christmas Time In New Orleans." It starts with the horns doing the melody from "Jingle Bells," and by the bridge we're hearing just what Santa is all about: You'll see a Dixieland Santa Claus, leading the band, to a good old Creole beat. That's a Santa more alive and more real than any hundred whiskered old men picking up some part-time seasonal work down at the mall. You don't line up for the Dixieland Santa. He marches right through your neighborhood, no matter how gritty, and he leaves everyone smiling.
In the New Orleans of my childhood, Christmas meant that all the jukeboxes in every seafood joint, drug store, bar, ice-cream parlor, diner and bowling alley got their own set of seasonal favorites on double-sided singles marked by little holly designs on the green title strips. Everywhere you went, Louis' horn was blowing, that trademark American voice so alive you could see his famous grin between the verses. I didn't know he had recently died, and I didn't know he was as beloved on the East Coast and the West Coast as he was in the Central Time Zone. I didn't know this grandchild of slaves had grown up on the whorehouse streets of Storyville, or that he'd been raised in part by a white Jewish family who dealt with another kind of prejudice, or that he was seen as too friendly to whites by his fellow black artists and many in the civil rights movement, or that when he did take a stand it had real power because he was talking directly to President Eisenhower, who listened.
But when I learned those things, much later, it made Louis Armstrong even better. Of course he must stay jolly, even as he keeps meticulous records on the Naughty and the Nice. Santa Claus cannot be born into wealth or royalty, either. Duke Ellington said this about Louis Armstrong: "He was born poor, died rich, and never hurt anyone along the way."
Like Jesus, Santa Claus always has humble origins. And like Jesus, Santa is always recognized by the little children. Children do not check with Fox News, for anything, because Fox News is the anti-Claus, the evil opposite of the love and generosity we know as the Christmas Spirit. Those people declared War on Christmas many years ago, and they're not going to give up until they've all passed away in their armchairs, their cold old hearts two sizes too small.