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The “sense of generosity and unmerited favor” is the key to the legend of Santa Claus, said Gerry Bowler, a professor at the University of Manitoba who specializes in the intersection of religion and popular culture, “especially Christmas.”

“The color doesn’t matter. It’s the notion of magic,” said Mr. Bowler, author of the book “Santa Claus: A Biography.” “In 1821 this guy appears, dressed in a fur robe, pulled in a sleigh by a single reindeer. But for the next 50, 60 years, there’s no single image of Santa Claus.”

A couple of years later, the description is enhanced in the beloved poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” to portray a man with rosy cheeks and a cherry nose.

“By 1900, we’ve got red-and-white suited, booted, fur jacket and pants,” he said.

That image is at the heat of a dispute that flared last week, when Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly declared on her program that “for all the kids watching at home, Santa just is white.”

She made the comments in the course of a discussion about an essay in the online Slate magazine about the sensitivity of the traditional depictions of Santa.

Ms. Kelly subsequently said the comment was a joke, a “tongue-in-cheek message for any kids watching saying that Santa — who I joked is a real person whose race is identifiable — is white.”

The comments were countlessly tweeted and linked, mocked on “The Daily Show” by comedian Jon Stewart and used as a punch line on “Saturday Night Live.” But the debate struck a nerve.

As recently as Monday, reports out of Rio Rancho, N.M., said a teacher was placed on administrative leave after telling a black ninth-grade student to remove a Santa Claus costume because Santa is white.

Rashawn Ray, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, said it might not always be about Santa, but we see a “similar type of narrative come up every year.”

“It might be who can be president, it might be who can be pope, what should the pope look like, or who should lead [news] anchors be.”

With whites still the predominate group in the culture, “this means that prominent images, whether this is Santa, Jesus or the president, should be white.”

But Santa’s skin tone has never created a problem at the Mall at Prince George’s, where the biggest concern is ensuring his beard is real.

Nydria Humphries said this was the first year she brought her 15-month-old daughter to visit Santa in Hyattsville.

The 28-year-old said she chose the mall partly because of its St. Nick.

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