The holiday season in the western world brings us primarily red and green, associated with Christmas trees and Santa Claus. Green is easy to explain: it is the color of newborn life. Evergreen plants such as mistletoe, holly and ivy have been used for thousands of years to brighten up the winter a bit and remind us of spring. Red was associated with Adam's apple in the garden of Eden, but also with red winter berries. The robes of bishops were red as well. And then there's the red uniform of Santa Claus, of course.
Why is Santa's uniform red? Because, back in the day, Santa used to be a bishop. No kidding. Santa Claus was introduced by Dutch settlers in America. He is a transformed version of the traditional Sinterklaas figure, later cunningly adopted by Coca-Cola for advertsing purposes. Sinterklaas (pronounced as 'santaclaus') was short for Saint Nicholas, a historical fourth century bishop, popular for protecting children and sailors. In ancient European tradition, Saint Nicholas presented kids with presents, around Christmas time.
And here's where it gets weird. In Holland, until today, Sinterklaas is a very popular figure among kids. Every Dutch kid knows the story of Sinterklaas. How every winter, early december, Sinterklaas travels by steamboat from Spain to Holland, accompanied by a band of 'black' helpers. He brings a huge bag of presents and a book. The book contains all the good and bad deeds of the kids. If a kid did some good, it gets a present. If the kid did bad, Sinterklaas' black helpers will put it in the bag to take it to Spain. Sinterklaas comes during the night. He walks over the roofs of the houses. His black helpers bring the presents down the chimneys. Which is one explanation for the black color of their skin. Another explanation has to do with race: the helpers traditionally used to be Arabic, which is also why they wear funny (faux Arabic style) costumes. Sure, it's a weird story. But no weirder than Santa Claus flying through the air with reindeer.
However, lately the black faces of Sinterklaas' helpers have become more and more controversial. Until recently, In Holland, the popular tradition was considered quite innocent. Hardly anyone made a connection with racism or the American tradition of 'black facing'. Even though, from an American point of view, the connotations are hard to ignore. In the last 10 winters or so, an increasingly loud discussion emerged in the Dutch media. Many people are now feeling uncomfortable with the tradition. So, a couple of interesting color suggestions emerged, to solve the issue.
One solution is to make Sinterklaas' helpers in all colors of the rainbow. After all, modern houses hardly have chimney's anymore. Smoke black has ceased to be an excuse.
Another solution, which garnered a lot of sympathy, is to turn the racism discussion upside down by making Sinterklaas' face black, rather than his helpers. It is even more or less historically correct, because Saint Nicholas originated out of Asia Minor rather than Western Europe. Ancient pictures portray him with a dark skin.