Is Santa Claus white?
That's what Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly said last week, touching off a firestorm of criticism.
So I thought I'd put the question to Santa himself – in the person of Ron Zeno, who has been playing Santa at Children's Fairyland in Oakland since 1995.
He burst out laughing, but it was one of those cases when you have to laugh to keep from crying.
"I don't see Santa as black or white," said Zeno (who is, in case you're curious, African American). "And neither do the kids. To them, I'm just plain old Santa. Every once in a while a parent will say, 'Oh, a black Santa!' But the kids never do."
But Kelly went even further, adding, "Jesus was a white man, too. He was a historical figure. That's a verifiable fact, as is Santa. I just want the kids watching to know that."
There are almost too many factual errors in that statement to count. For one thing, Santa is not a historical figure.
Yes, he was modeled on St. Nicholas, a theological heavyweight - he was one of the signers of the Nicene Creed - who lived in Asia Minor (now known as Turkey) in the third century. But he has historically been portrayed with dark skin, like the other people who lived in the area.
The modern-day white Santa was invented by the Dutch and Germans and given his present look by poet Clement Clark Moore, cartoonist Thomas Nast, and the Coca-Cola company.
But – and I know this is going to come as a shock to Megyn Kelly – he's not real.
As for Jesus, does anyone seriously believe that an Aramaic-speaking, first century Middle Eastern Jew had blue eyes, white skin and flowing blond hair? He does in American movies from the 1950s, which is probably where Kelly got the idea. But no serious Biblical scholar believes it.
In 2001 the BBC hired a forensic archaeologist from the University of Manchester to examine a skeleton of a first century Middle Eastern Jew and use computer technology to create a reasonable facsimile of what he must have looked like. Not surprisingly, the reconstruction revealed that he had a broad face and a large nose.
Meanwhile, an Old Testament scholar at Duke analyzed portraits of third century Jews and found they had dark skins and short, curly hair.
And Saint Paul would agree. In First Corinthians he says it is "disgraceful" for a man to have long hair. Although he never met Jesus, he did meet people who knew Jesus intimately, including St. Peter. Do you think he would have condemned a hairstyle that Jesus wore?
The bottom line is that by saying Jesus is white, you're saying God is white. Just who is creating whom in whose image?
Kelly has replied to the criticism with the standard can't-you-take-a-joke response. But it's not a joke to little kids of color, who have just been told they're second-class humans. It's not only cruel, it's gratuitously cruel.
As an old hymn from my youth says, "Jesus loves the little children/All the children of the world/Red, brown, yellow, black or white/They're all precious in His sight/Jesus loves the little children of the world."
Little kids understand this instinctively. Why is it so hard for grownups?