“santa claus is a black man” – akim & the teddy vann production company (1973)


I love Christmas.  The snow is magical and I love spending time with family and eating Christmas treats.  However, a lot of people can be cynical about Christmas.  Whether it is the fictional “War on Christmas” or that one friend who puts it down as a being nothing more than a holiday celebrating capitalism, it can be a very polarizing holiday.  And, perhaps, the most polarizing aspect of the holiday season is Christmas music.

Christmas music manages to be something that both delights and annoys people every winter.  For some people, it seems that Christmas music comes on the radio earlier and earlier each year.  They even proclaim that Christmas music has no place until Thanksgiving is over.  Others might complain that the same old songs they play every year are annoying and that Baby Boomers who control a nostalgia-driven media market don’t allow for the inclusion of fresher Christmas songs.  They wonder aloud why “Wonderful Christmastime” or “Last Christmas” get played repeatedly and the soundtrack never changes.  Or, if you’re like one of my ex-girlfriends, you hate all the Christmas pop staples and only prefer the holiday standards from the likes of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.

Needless to say, everyone has an opinion on Christmas music.  It is just so pervasive this time of year that you cannot ignore it.  Even people who don’t celebrate Christmas or don’t normally listen to the radio have strong opinions about being inundated with Christmas music.  It is just so big a presence that you cannot possibly escape it and, therefore, have strong opinions on it.

For me, I love Christmas music.  I enjoy all Christmas.  From the American songbook standards to the religious choir pieces and to, especially, the novelty songs, I like a mixed bag of Christmas songs.  I want my Christmas playlist long and broad.  I want everything.  Even though I don’t want any gifts on a holiday where gift-giving is standard, I want all the Christmas song.

And for those naysayers…

“What about them playing Christmas music before Thanksgiving?”

“What else are they gonna play?  Thanksgiving songs?”

“There’s a lot of great Christmas song out there that don’t make it to the radio.  What about the new Christmas songs?”

“Throw your radio away and look on the Internet.”

“I hate certain types of Christmas songs.  Why should I have to hear them at the grocery store?”

“Stay inside, never leave, and be comforted by your limited tastes.”

And so, like Elton John, step into Christmas with me!  Just leave your Christmas music complaints at the door.

While I love all kinds of Christmas music, I do have my favorites.  For one, I love songs that shake the status quo and make certain types of stuffy, conservative white people uncomfortable.  And of all the radio-friendly songs (radio-friendly because as much as I love “Home Christmas” by Pansy Division, you won’t find it on the airwaves in your Grandma’s Buick) that are guaranteed to ruffle some conservative feathers, the 1973 soul classic “Santa Claus Is a Black Man” by Akim & The Teddy Vann Production Company is one my favorites.

Teddy Vann wrote and produced this song as a black response to the Christmas staple “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”  While that song can be fun depending on the performer, “Santa Claus Is a Black Man” makes a profound statement by attaching an identity to the narrative.  And that is incredibly important.  While tons of Christmas songs make mention of Santa’s iconic suit, beard, and weight, the classic image of Santa Claus is always interpreted as white.  I can’t think of any songs that specifically say the fictional gift-giver is Caucasian, but it ends up being the case.

Today, when Santa Claus is depicted as being a race other than white, it causes an uproar from people who see themselves as Christmas traditionalists of purists.  And this is because that the image of Santa has been implied as white in our media.  Even though he is a fictional character, changing his race causes problems for some people.

Given that Trump has emboldened racists and white supremacists in this country, we need songs like “Santa Claus Is a Black Man.”  We need more anthems that create an identity for marginalized people.  We need to popularize and elevate those anthems beyond being considered camp or novelty records.  We need to make it ok for the children of marginalized people to craft a symbol of joy and giving in an image that appeals to them.  While letting people win the argument that Santa must be white doesn’t cause bloodshed or direct violence, the impact it has on our society is detrimental to the visibility of people of color.

Beyond the statement “Santa Claus Is a Black Man” makes by connecting a cultural identity, the song is also just really adorable.  Vann’s five-year-old daughter, Akim, sings the vocals. And while “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” focuses on infidelity, “Santa Claus Is a Black Man” is a song of pride.  Akim sees Santa, unaware that it is her dad, and is proud of how Santa Claus is handsome and strong and black like her father.  There is pride there that builds respect in an identity as opposed to being a song about a stupid tattletale.

So, this Christmas, blast “Santa Claus Is a Black Man” as loud as you can.  Make a statement this holiday season and let square friends and family know that you don’t give a shit about a white Santa or lame traditions.  You’re making your Christmas represent what you believe.  And if spreading joy and cheer means changing Santa’s skin color, make him bigger and blacker than any Santa before him!