A Decade Before the Mall of America Did, Children’s Television Had a Black Santa Claus, and the World Didn’t End

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by Andrew Bloom

in Christmas, Television

Watch enough Star Wars in the lead up to the franchise’s recent resurgence, and you get to know the menace of James Earl Jones’s voice. His deep timbre and stentorian tones bring authority and fear when he gives orders to underlings or threatens a band of rebels. But that same big baritone, the same pitch that gives Jones gravitas when voicing the heavy, gives him a certain mirth and a tone of loving paternal authority when voicing Santa Claus.

This is the revelation that Recess, an animated show for kids, uncovered when casting Jones as the jolly old elf himself in the show’s 1998 Christmas special. Recess ran from 1997-2001 and was produced under the Disney umbrella (just as Jones’s Vader eventually would be). Part of ABC’s One Saturday Morning block, the show was an embryonic version of Community, centered on six distinct but close-knit friends, navigating the colorful and outsized ecosystem of their elementary school, where character stories and genre pastiches abound.

In Recess’s first Christmas episode, “Yes, Mikey, Santa Does Shave,” Mikey Blumberg, one of the kids in the main group, firmly believes that Santa is real and goes on a crusade to prove this point to his collection of sympathetic but skeptical chums. He runs into roadblock after roadblock in the attempt. He discovers, to his chagrin, that while Saint Nicholas was a real person, he died centuries ago. The Santa at the local mall cannot handle the enthusiastic, heavy-set child sitting on his knee, eventually revealing himself to be an imposter. Even the Santa in the town’s local Christmas parade turns out to merely be the mayor in a beard, drumming up votes for his reelection campaign.

After the onslaught of these disappointments and shocking revelations, Mikey is understandably despondent. His friends try to comfort him, but he’s bitter and inconsolable. (In a hilarious touch, he looks upon a lit-up mechanical Santa in front of a store and refers to it as a “capitalist dupe.”) He even tears up and throws away his letter to Santa Claus, a symbol of his previously steadfast belief. The only thing that cuts through Mikey’s doom and gloom is a kindly old man, sitting on his front porch and giving Mikey an important lesson about belief, holiday cheer and the spirit of the season, regardless of whether Santa is someone he can see with his own two eyes.

That man is, of course, James Earl Jones, playing in the same space he did in the childhood classic The Sandlot. His lesson is enough to convince Mikey, who’s been cast as Santa in the elementary school’s holiday pageant (which is set to be broadcast coast-to-coast) to return to his post and spread the same message to everyone within earshot. Mikey sings his heart out (with a singing voice provided by Robert Goulet, in one of the show’s amusing running gags), and it’s clear that his faith has been restored.

And who should be he meet after the show, but that same kindly old man? This mysterious but friendly gentleman, by some stroke of magic, has Mikey’s letter, which just so happened to invite Santa Claus himself to the show. What’s more, the letter is in one piece, not the tattered state it was in when Mikey last saw it. Suddenly, the expected local heatwave gives way to a blanket of snow, guaranteeing a white Christmas to everyone’s surprise. And the old man whisks himself away with a hearty ho ho ho and holiday well-wishes for good measure.

And that Santa Claus, like the person who voices him, is black.

What’s remarkable is, well, how Recess treats this fact as so unremarkable. After the reveal, the kids don’t question Jones’s character being Santa Claus. He’s written and performed in the same style as, say, the Santa of Miracle on 34th Street. And above all, the show, and its characters’ reactions, present it as entirely uncontroversial that a man who looks like James Earl Jones could be the man who lives at the North Pole.

There was no ensuing controversy, no hue and cry, no gnashing of teeth or clutching of pearls. Perhaps Recess was simply never high profile enough to engender such a misguided response to its depiction of Old Saint Nick. But the fact remains – in 1998, millions of kids, including yours truly, watched this episode and managed to not only avoid being scandalized at this development, but were implicitly taught — through how normally the episode treats Jones’s Santa Claus — that the color of Santa’s skin was nothing to get excited over.

What makes this feat particularly striking is the episode’s mild disdain, or at least propensity to make fun of, the era of P.C. culture that had taken hold in the mid-to-late nineties. The sleazy Hollywood executive (Better Call Saul’s Michael McKean) running the school’s “non-denominational extravaganza” talks on the phone to a producer about his plans for the pageant and declares that, “Even the most jingle-brained political correctoid won’t be able to complain about this show.”

The pageant itself features several tongue-in-cheek jabs in this vein, in the form of new characters created by the executive for the show meant as a sop to other cultures. We briefly meet Good King Kwanza, Harvey Hanukkah, and a pair of Winter Solstice Druids to keep the objectors at bay. The pageant even opens with Gus, the most diminutive boy in the group, talk-singing a polite request that people not to use the politically incorrect term “elf.” There’s a mild but clear undercurrent to the episode that these moves toward inclusiveness and empathy are, at a minimum, something worth poking fun at.

It’s notable, then, that the show chooses to feature a black Santa Claus without any comment or particular attention drawn to that choice, which helps to normalize the same broader sense of inclusiveness in the process. As silly as is it is to have grown men and women debating the race of a fairy tale character on national television, for children especially, seeing people who are reflections of them on TV and film is vitally important to help build self-esteem and a belief in their own limitless potential.

Who knows if Recess intended to make a statement by casting a heavy-hitter like Jones as their Santa. “Yes, Mikey, Santa Does Shave” isn’t an especially novel episode of television otherwise. Mikey’s journey is a well-worn, if sweet one, and his sadness and maturation over the course of the episode are part and parcel with the standard holiday lessons. But by not only making the show’s Santa Claus black, but treating him in the same way that any other Santa Claus would be treated, the show did send a powerful message about inclusion and the idea that Santa, and by extension the children watching him, could grow up to be anything they wanted, especially if Father Christmas himself can look different than the Santas in so many mall displays and holiday movies and still be the real deal.

By making Jones their Santa Claus, Recess leapfrogged the Mall of America’s recent decision to have a black man portray Santa Claus by more than a decade. Since that time, somehow, some way, our country and Christmas, have both managed to survive unscathed. Let’s hope it’s not the last time that malls, children’s television shows, and people at home with their families are willing to be so bold.

 

Andrew Bloom  (@TheAndrewBlog) runs The Andrew Blog, where he overanalyzes The Simpsons and takes pop culture too seriously. He also remembers when The Office had a woman play Santa Claus, and only Michael Scott was fool enough to object.

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