I’m not sure when I stopped believing in Santa Claus the individual, but it was well before I first admitted it to my parents — for two reasons:
First, I thought if I confessed to not believing, those much-wished-for presents would stop appearing on Christmas mornings. But mostly, as a black kid growing up in Texas, I felt that to deny Santa would mean giving up on those magical moments in the basement of Leonard’s Department Store when, for a few days leading up to Christmas, race didn’t seem to matter.
I’ve thought a lot about Santa lately, and those childhood days, as I’ve heard the world’s most iconic Christmas figure (other than Jesus) politicized, criticized and even threatened by a deranged gunman.
Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, in trying to explain why his side lost the presidential election, reasoned that Barack Obama won re-election because he was “Santa Claus” bearing gifts for all those no-account, pathetic “takers” in America who voted for him.
In an Oregon shopping mall last week, even Santa had to take cover when a masked gunman started shooting at strangers, killing two people, wounding one and then turning the gun on himself.
As one who was raised to go to church and Sunday school, I don’t recall ever being confused about whether Santa was a religious figure. I knew better.
But, again, I knew the spirit of that childhood Santa was real, if only for a short season each year.
I also was constantly reminded that this jolly, old, rosy-cheeked, white-bearded, red-dressed figure could never totally transcend race. Even before Limbaugh proved that with his most recent anti-Obama antics, I saw Santa — usually humorously — injected into the great racial divide.
It was comic and social critic Dick Gregory whom I first heard explain that he and his family and friends never believed in Santa Claus “because we knew no white man was coming into our neighborhood after dark.”
The iconic comedian Redd Foxx said his family was so poor that one Christmas Eve his father fired a gun outside the house, came back in and told all the kids, “Well, there’ll be no Christmas this year because Santa Claus just committed suicide.”
And there was James Brown, who lyrically urged Santa to “go straight to the ghetto.”
Growing up, I spent a lot of time in Detroit, which was home to Hudson’s Department Store, billed then as the second-largest department store in the country (behind Macy’s in New York) and, at 25 stories, the world’s tallest department store.
Hudson’s was one of the first stores to have a black Santa. But, as I recall, many young black kids didn’t want to go to him because, since he was not white, he couldn’t be the “real one.” That reality has shades of the black/white doll experiment used as evidence in the historic Brown v. Board of Education case.
And that brings me back to Leonard’s in Fort Worth, which at one time was the largest department store west of the Mississippi.
At Christmastime, its basement was turned into “Toyland,” a magical place complete with an overhead monorail that took kids into a tunnel filled with alluring scenes. And, of course, Santa was the main attraction.
In this fantasy world, there were no “white” and “colored” signs, and no one who told you to go to the back of the line. It was a place that allowed kids like me to escape an otherwise unwelcoming world.
Waiting in line to see Santa, knowing that he would not reject me, was comforting in ways that are difficult to explain today.
Despite the cynics, from years past and those today, that spirit of Santa Claus has stayed a part of my memory — long, long after I stopped believing in the man.
I just wish more people felt this spirit, particularly when the nation and the world are filled with so much conflict and pain.
Bob Ray Sanders is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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