In the overheated post-election atmosphere, Santa Claus is seen by some as another cherished cultural institution under attack by the forces of political correctness. The traditional image of Santa, as a jolly, rotund, and white, character is deeply embedded in American culture.
"Going to a department store, sitting on Santa's lap, all of that, is very central to a certain kind of post-war, white middle-class identity," says Prof Victoria Wolcott*3, a history professor at the University of Buffalo, who writes about segregation.
"To challenge that, by having a Santa Claus of colour, disturbs people."
It appears to have been disturbing people for more than a century, judging from local newspaper reports about "negro Santas", which tend to veer from an amused "whatever next" tone to examples of flat-out racism.
"A negro Santa Claus went down a chimney head first and landed on the fire," A 1901 news report, from Bloomfield, New Jersey, read. "The surprised occupants of the room flogged him."
Other reports from the time tell of Christmas parties enlivened by "black-face" Santas, singing "negro melodies".
In 1915, a gushing account of President Wilson's honeymoon at a Virginia resort included a description of a festive party "presided over by a dusky Santa Claus", with a large "gaily decorated" Christmas tree.
"Before [the tree] disported 15 negroes, whose antics and musical efforts kept the President and everybody else almost convulsed with laughter."
Four years later, the Pittsburgh Daily Post carried a report about the "the first negro Santa ever put on the streets of any city". He had been hired by the Volunteers of America in response to "appeals from poor coloured children", the newspaper added.
But the real breakthrough for black Santas came in 1936, when tap-dancing legend Bill "Bojangles" Robinson*4 became Harlem's "first negro Santa Claus" at an annual Christmas Eve party for underprivileged children.
In 1943, one of Harlem's biggest department stores, Blumstein's, hired its first black Santa Claus. It was followed, in 1946, by a store in Chicago.
As white people moved out to the suburbs, and began shopping at the giant new malls that were being built there, it made economic sense for downtown department store owners to tailor the Christmas shopping experience to their now mainly black customers.
By the 1960s, Santa had been recruited by the civil rights movement, which was starting to use economic boycotts as a weapon in the fight for racial equality.
In 1969, Santa Claus was described as "one of the established symbols of racism" by a civil rights leader, in a dispute with Shillittoes, a Cincinnati department store, that refused to hire a black Father Christmas.
The store owner's Fred Lazarus III said: "This has nothing to do with equality of employment. It just doesn't fit the symbol as kids have known it."
But the Rev Otis Moss Jr, a regional director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, hit back, saying: "If a department store cannot conceive of a black man as Santa Claus for 30 days, it most assuredly cannot conceive of his being president or vice president for 365 days."
The store caved in and hired a black Santa the following year, something that began happening with increasing frequency across the country in the early 1970s, including at Macy's flagship New York store.
One department store in Brooklyn even set up rival black-and-white Santas, separated by a low partition, to enable people to make their choice.
*1:http://mallofamerica.com/ See eg. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mall_of_America https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E3%83%A2%E3%83%BC%E3%83%AB%E3%83%BB%E3%82%AA%E3%83%96%E3%83%BB%E3%82%A2%E3%83%A1%E3%83%AA%E3%82%AB
*2:Mentioned in http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20051228/1135736541 http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20071225/1198604892 http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20141221/1419175246 http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20150104/1420390585 http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20150505/1430832210 http://d.hatena.ne.jp/sumita-m/20161213/1481600217
*4:See eg. Ashley Jones “Robinson, Bill “Bojangles” (1878-1949)” http://www.blackpast.org/aah/robinson-bill-bojangles-1878-1949 “Bill Bojangles Robinson 1878-1949” http://black-face.com/Bill-Bojangles-Robinson.htm https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Robinson