Creatives give Santa a multicultural makeover

Let’s engage in a little thought experiment. It’s a simple ask, really: Picture Santa. Got it? You’ve more than likely envisioned him as he’s been portrayed in countless TV commercials and movies over the decades: A portly fella with an enormous white beard, red suit and hat, maybe glasses. Oh, and white skin.

The so-called “Coca-Cola Santa” has been the de facto representation of the beloved holiday figure since he was first conceived by illustrator Haddon Sundblom in 1931. And, like so many other things in contemporary society, he’s seen through a predominantly white male lens.

That was brought home to Toronto creative André Yumbla-Bell a few years ago, when a white kid approached a young family member and cruelly informed her that while Santa would be visiting her house that Christmas, he would not be visiting Gabrielle’s.

Relaying the incident to friends and family, Yumbla-Bell, realized that it was not a unique story. “It had happened to more people than we realized,” he said. “Its seems like people with darker skin might not feel that Santa is for them.”

There have been attempts to put forward Black Santas over the years. In 2016, for example, the Mall of America hired a Black retired Army captain named Larry Jefferson as its first Black Santa after he was spotted by a “Santa recruiter” (who knew) at the annual Santa Claus Convention.

But the idea of a coloured Santa has also met with staunch resistance. In 2013, after Slate published an article entitled “Santa Claus should not be a white man anymore,” then Fox News personality Megyn Kelly said during a subsequent panel discussion, “For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white.”

A Google image search further underscores just how rare it is to come across non-white depictions of Santa, with 27 white images of Kris Kringle’s before the appearance of a Black Santa (which links to a 2021 New York Times article entitled “In search of Black Santa”). When he did the search, Yumbla-Bell found that 98 of the first 100 images depicted the traditional version of Santa.

That schoolyard incident also planted the seed of an idea in Yumbla-Bell’s head. He worked with art director Andrew Oliver, and Eric Seenarine, a developer at Performance Art, to create, which houses a downloadable kit containing printable files for everything from wrapping paper to gift tags and a mug design that enable users to depict Santa in one of seven different skin tones.

“My whole family and my buddies’ families are all the skin tones, and we all celebrate Christmas,” said Yumbla-Bell of the multi-ethnic team behind the project. “I think there’s room to change that one iconic Santa to include everybody. I believe positive representation matters, and these are the types of thing you wouldn’t necessarily realize might be hurtful or make a little kid sad.”

The group hopes their project will impact broader society, but at the very least their own families, particularly the young children. Asked what he would consider an ideal outcome for the venture, Yumbla-Bell said he and the rest of the team simply hopes it proves meaningful for other ethnic families.

“If we get an email that says ‘Wow, this is meaningful for our family,’ that’s enough,” he said. “It might be cheesy, but our intentions are pure. We’ve identified a problem that made a few of our family members feel not so great, so how can we make everybody feel more included?”

And will every gift under Yumbla-Bell’s tree be wrapped in this new wrapping paper this year. “I think it has to be,” he said.

Chris Powell