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American Routes Shortcuts: Chuck Siler

Santa's Second Line by Chuck Siler
Chuck Siler

Nick Spitzer speaks to Chuck Siler, a museum curator and visual artist, who tells us about his experience as a black Santa in Vietnam in 1968. He began with a description of his alternative to the traditional white Santa Claus.


Chuck Siler: I never believed as a kid that Santa Claus was this big, hairy white man who was going to come down my chimney. Ain’t no Santa, ain’t no Claus, ain’t nobody but your ma and pa. 

Nick Spitzer: Chuck Siler presents museum programs and is a visual artist who has been making his own holiday cards for years. 

CS: I stopped painting white Santa Claus. About ten years ago I came up with a Christmas character called Baba Kwanzaa, you know sort of an African Spirit of giving. And since he was born in New Orleans, the first thing I did of him was a second-lining little Baba Kwanzaa in his black, green and red, and his dreadlocks and his beard, and associated it with merriment, with mirth, with joy, with the same qualities that Santa Claus has because I think all of it is about a spirit of giving or a spirit of profound feelings of humanity. 

NS: Despite his misgivings about the traditional Santa, Chuck did slip on the red suit and spread a little cheer one Christmas over 30 years ago when he was very far from home. 

CS: Christmas of 1968, my experience as a black Santa. I was in Quy Nhon, South Vietnam, I was a correspondent with Quy Nhon information office, and you know, some folk didn’t mind firing on us on Christmas, but it didn’t stop people from partying. Every year, somebody gets the job to be Santa Claus. For whatever reason, I got the job, which means you basically roam around the compound, toasting and drinking and partying and toasting and drinking and wearing this damn big red suit. You gotta understand, it wasn’t cold in South Vietnam, so that suit got hot after a while. The chocolate part of the Santa made for a lot of jokes. There are probably some funny pictures around of grown men sitting on my lap. If there’s anybody out there who remembers this or who remembers me, you don’t have to be in touch, it’s okay. 

CS: Ho ho ho, this is Chuck Siler, take a listen to Clarence Carter doing “Back Door Santa.”

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 7 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.