What race can Jesus and Santa be?

Matthew SmithLead data journalist
December 22, 2020, 2:56 PM UTC

Only 3% of Americans object to depicting Jesus as anything other than white, although many more take issue with Christ being shown as certain races

The debate as to Jesus Christ’s ethnicity has been going on for a long time, perhaps hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

In 2020, however, the consequences of that debate are perhaps felt more urgently, with critics claiming that representation of Jesus as Caucasian is perpetuating white supremacy.

Christ is most commonly depicted in America as being a white man, with the Washington Post crediting Warner E. Sallman’s 1940 painting “Head of Christ” – which has since been reproduced a billion times ­– as playing a key role in this. 

The image of Christ as a man with white skin and blue eyes would appear to be at odds with what is likely, given the biblical account of his family hailing from the Middle East. 

And in fact, when asked in what ways it is ok to depict Jesus, showing him as having Middle Eastern ethnic characteristics is the most acceptable form of the son of God to Americans. Almost two thirds (65%) say it is permittable to depict Christ in this way, compared to 60% who say it is acceptable to depict him as being white.  

Half of Americans (52%) also feel that it is fine to depict Jesus as being Black. In an interview with the Washington Post, David Morgan – a professor of religious studies at Duke University – said that some of the earliest images of Jesus showed him “with very dark skin and possibly African”. 

Justin Welby – the Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest official within the Church of England besides the Queen – highlighted recently that in many locations of the Anglican church Jesus is presented as being having local racial characteristics. The Archbishop himself gave examples of having seen a Black Jesus, a Chinese Jesus, a Middle Eastern Jesus and a Fijian Jesus. 

Other such racial depictions of Christ are seen as less acceptable, however. Fewer than half of Americans think it is ok for Jesus to be shown as Hispanic (44%), Native American (43%), South Asian (40%) or East Asian (38%). In each case, however, the number of people who say this is an acceptable way to display Christ outnumber those who think it is unacceptable. 

Overall, one in three Americans (34%) take exception to Christ being depicted as at least one of the non-white ethnicities we asked about, although only 3% felt it was unacceptable to depict Jesus as being anything other than white. 

Another one in three Americans (35%) said that it was acceptable to depict Christ in every one of the races we asked about. 

Santa Claus 

Given that – if you are a Christian at least – Jesus Christ was a real person, there is ostensibly a correct answer to the question of his race, although we will never know it. 

But what about for that other figure centrally tied with Christmas – Santa Claus? The red-coated present dispenser is, as most Americans above the age of 9 are aware, decidedly not real, so surely depictions of him as being non-white should be acceptable? 

Seemingly not. In response to a 2013 Slate article in which the writer proposed making Santa a more racially-inclusive penguin, after their childhood culture shock of finding most other households depicted a white rather than Black human Santa, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly declared that “Santa just is white”. (Later in the same segment Kelly would also proclaim Jesus to be white). 

As recently as this year Fox 16 reported the case of Chris Kennedy, a man from Little Rock, Arkansas, receiving racist abuse from a neighbour for having an 8ft black Santa Claus decoration in his front yard. 

Nevertheless, the large majority of Americans (67%) think a Black Santa is perfectly acceptable. Only 14% of Americans think that it isn’t acceptable to depict Santa as being Black. 

Most Americans also think it’s fine to show Santa as being Hispanic (63%), Native American (61%), Middle-Eastern (60%), East Asian (59%) or South Asian (58%). 

A white Santa remains the most accepted depiction of St Nicholas, however, at 79%. 

Overall, a majority of Americans (56%) say it is acceptable to show Santa as being from any of the races we asked about.  

Only 8% of Americans say Santa can only be depicted as white, although 21% take exception with at least one form of non-white Santa. 

Men are more likely than women to have a problem with non-white depictions of Jesus and Santa Claus 

Our research found that across the board men are more judgmental about the race of Santa and Jesus. In the case of Santa they are generally being about twice as likely as women to say Santa’s depiction as being from a given race is unacceptable. When it comes to Jesus that difference is only a little smaller. 

Older Americans are generally slightly more likely to say depictions of Jesus as being from a given non-white race are unacceptable, with the exception of Middle Eastern, where there is no difference. On a non-white Santa, there is no significant difference between the generations. 

People are least likely to say that it is unacceptable to show Jesus as being from their own race. For instance, 12% of Black people object to a Black Santa, compared to 22% of Hispanics and 23% of white people who do so. Likewise, the 19% of Hispanic people who say a Hispanic Jesus is unacceptable is lower than the 27% of white and Black people who say the same. 

The number of Black Americans who object to a white Jesus is far higher than among other racial groups – as many as 42% say such a depiction is unacceptable, compared to 16% of Hispanic Americans and 13% of white Americans. 

When it comes to Santa Claus, white people are less likely than other racial groups to have a problem with depictions of Santa being of any ethnicity. Again, there is a noticeably larger objection to Santa Claus being portrayed as white among Black Americans (20%) than other groups (6% of Hispanics and 3% of white Americans). 

See the full results here

Methodology: Total sample size was 1,067 US adults. Survey was conducted online between December 8-9, 2020. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all US adults (aged 18+).