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Santa's color isn't the important thing

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
December 16, 2013 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Cultural debate flares over question of whether Santa is white
  • Ruben Navarrette says Santa's color doesn't matter, but his message does
  • He says Santa's message should be that kids earn gifts but aren't not entitled to them
  • At holiday time, some Santas help parents do their job right, Navarrette says

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter @rubennavarrette.

(CNN) -- Do you know why so many children think they're entitled to a comfy life filled with toys, smiles and puppy dogs?

I blame Santa Claus.

Not "white" Santa Claus or "nonwhite" Santa Claus. Just Santa Claus.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Christmas came early for perennial critics of Fox News when host Megyn Kelly got sucked into the country's racial vortex by insisting that Santa Claus -- and, also, for that matter, Jesus -- is white.

It all began with a column by Slate culture blogger Aisha Harris, who is African-American. In the piece, provocatively titled "Santa Claus should not be a white man anymore," Harris noted that she grew up with "two different Santa Clauses" -- one in popular culture that was white, and one she knew in her household, who was black. She advocated that, from this point on, Santa should be depicted as, eh, a penguin.

Kelly was having none of it.

"Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn't mean it has to change. Jesus was a white man, too. It's like we have, he's a historical figure that's a verifiable fact, as is Santa, I just want kids to know that. How do you revise it in the middle of the legacy in the story and change Santa from white to black?"

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After being criticized and ridiculed from here to the North Pole, Kelly accused her detractors of "race-baiting" and claimed that her comment was lighthearted. She did apologize, however, for her comment about Jesus, saying she had learned the question was "far from settled."

I can relate to part of what Harris said. As a parent, I'm also living with two different Santa Clauses. But it has nothing to do with skin color. My two Santas are "Good Santa" and "Bad Santa."

I'm not worried about what color Santa Claus is.

Teacher to student: You can't be Santa -- you're black

What I'm worried about is the challenge of raising well-behaved kids in a society that sometimes make this difficult. As a parent of young children -- 8, 6 and 4 -- I want to care for them but not coddle them. I don't worry about being too hard on my kids or demanding too much; I'm more concerned that, like many parents, I'll wind up being too soft, too accommodating and too eager to excuse their misbehavior. I want them to be kind, thoughtful, generous and grateful for all they have.

And do you know who sometimes works against me on that last front? Ol' St. Nick himself. You see, the opposite of grateful isn't ungrateful. It's entitled. After all, it's hard to feel thankful for something that you believe you're owed.

And if you want to know where the American culture of entitlement begins, try eavesdropping when your kids talk to Santa Claus.

You'll either get Good Santa or Bad Santa.

In my first encounter this year, I got a Good Santa. I know the difference because, over the years, I've had plenty of Bad Santas. That guy -- who lingers at malls and department stores -- must work on commission. He encourages kids to rattle off a list of all the toys they want. Kids come away thinking that Christmas is all about gifts -- and unearned gifts at that. Bad Santa doesn't ask anything in return for his largess. A child gets toys just by being a child.

On the other hand, Good Santa is old school. He requires that kids put some skin in the game. That's what happened when I took my 6-year-old son, along with his 6-year-old and 5-year-old cousins, to see Santa just a few days ago. We weren't at the mall or department store but at a Christmas get-together at our neighborhood club house.

When the boys approached Santa and began to rattle off what they want for Christmas, he put up his hand and stopped them. First, he asked if they had been good this year. Then Santa got on his soapbox.

He told them to listen to their parents (and their uncle) and not fight with their siblings. And if they did that, he said, maybe they'd get the toy they want. But they'd only get one, so they had better choose wisely. The kids nodded obediently. They each asked for one gift and promised to hold up their end of the bargain. The jury is still out.

I was pleasantly surprised. This Santa really was a saint. He was the kind of Santa I remembered growing up, and I hadn't seen him in years.

Throughout life, our kids will get plenty of encouragement to think of themselves as entitled. We should make the holidays about teaching them that, whatever they want, they have to earn by being good -- good to others, making good choices and practicing good behavior.

Some people say it takes a village to raise a child. But do you know what would really come in handy? A few good Santas.

Meanwhile, back in the cultural war, it's a silly waste of time for Americans to argue over whether Santa is white or black. What matters is his philosophy on gift-giving.

Besides, this whole argument is positively 20th century! In 2010, Latinos made up 16% of the U.S. population, and they are expected to account for as much as 30% by 2050.

Everyone knows that, at least in the United States and Latin America, Santa is Latino. So, this year, skip the cookies, and leave out some tamales.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

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