Santa Larry Jefferson poses with a family. Courtesy of Landon Luther, co-owner of The Santa Experience

The rising demand for Santas of color

Janet Nguyen Dec 23, 2019
Santa Larry Jefferson poses with a family. Courtesy of Landon Luther, co-owner of The Santa Experience

Back in 1999, Larry Jefferson’s nephews were sick during Christmastime, so he showed up to their house in a $30 Santa suit with a pillowcase that he used as a sack. 

When they saw him, they got so excited they began to yell, “Santa Claus is at the door!”

The surprise plan worked. 

About 20 years later, Jefferson had a much bigger audience to perform in front of. In 2016, he became the Mall of America’s first black Santa. He’s now appeared there every year since. 

“Santa can be anybody,” Jefferson said. “Anybody who has love and kindness in their hearts and wants to share that with others can be Santa Claus.”

Larry Jefferson posing as Santa. (Courtesy of Landon Luther, co-owner of The Santa Experience)

There’s a long history of some stores taking the initiative to recruit black Santas. One of Harlem’s biggest department stores hired its first black Santa Claus in 1943, followed by a store in Chicago in 1946, the BBC reported. Meanwhile, the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza in Los Angeles has become renowned for its black Santa.

Some events also host a Shogun Santa and Latino Santas who speak Spanish to visitors. But despite the potential for diversity of the Christmas icon, Santa remains predominantly white.

Gerry Bowler, author of “Santa Claus: A Biography” and “The World Encyclopedia of Christmas,” said there was artistic debate and disagreement over Santa’s appearance in the 1800s. People argued whether he was adult-sized, mid-sized, old, young, bearded or beardless at various points. 

His face eventually got standardized through a series of cartoons drawn for Harper’s Magazine by Thomas Nast, a German-American caricaturist and cartoonist, beginning in the 1860s.

Thomas Nast’s portrayal of Santa Claus. (Wikimedia Commons)

“He puts him in fur long johns, which is a very bad look, and mercifully we dropped that. But the face has remained the same. It’s jolly, grandfatherly, elderly and benevolent,” Bowler said. “And white.” 

Later, he made his debut in Coke ads, further solidifying that image in the minds of Americans.

There are certain features that make Santa, well, Santa. But Ed Taylor, who runs a school called the Santa Claus Conservatory, said Santa Claus is about “the embodiment of that Christmas spirit.”  

Taylor said his school has about 3,000 members worldwide, but the number of black Santas and Latino Santas is “very few” relative to the requests he gets.

Long Island, New York-based Tim Connaghan, who also runs a school that trains Santas and Mrs. Clauses, said that of the 4,200 who have attended, less than a dozen have been black Santas.

Some are taking the initiative to help families connect with the black Santas that are already in their area, like Jihan Woods, a black woman living in Texas. She created the app Find Black Santa, which lists black Santas in each state. Others have formed their own businesses, like Stafford Braxton, the CEO of Santas Just Like Me. The company sends its Santas to cultural and arts centers, corporate parties and charity events at various cities throughout North Carolina. 

Back in 2011, when Braxton had worked at a major mall in Raleigh, North Carolina, he had guests coming up to him and asking if they were ever going to have a black Santa.

“[The mall] never did anything with a black Santa. Well, in the meantime, I decided: I’ll do it,” Braxton said.

He said business is getting even busier — his Santas will probably do more than 40 events by the end of the holiday season, compared to 12 last year.

But his Santas find it difficult to get gigs at malls.

Landon Luther — co-owner of The Santa Experience, the studio at Mall of America that offers in-person appointments with Santas like Larry Jefferson —  said he sadly hasn’t observed a significant increase in black Santas at other malls since they hired him in 2016.

“We would hope our small little business would challenge the bigger mall corporations,” he said.

One of Larry Jefferson’s favorite memories at Mall of America was when an elderly woman approached him, looking emotional. He wasn’t quite sure what she was feeling. “I said, ‘Ma’am, what brought up these emotions? Did I do something wrong?”

She said: “No. All my life I wanted to see a black Santa Claus, and here you are.”

Braxton has also met guests who are encountering a black Santa for the first time.

“At the end of the day, it’s really about people seeing themselves represented,” he said.“That’s all people want. They just want to be represented.” 

Warren Keyes, a black Santa who works with Braxton, said there were no Santas who looked like him in the town he grew up in. 

“I think it’s very important for kids — just like kids are excited to see a doctor who is like them,” Warren said.

Some places in the U.S., like downtown Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo area, are also putting their own creative spin on the archetypal Santa figure. Inside the district’s Japanese Village, Shogun Santa awaits visitors, but this time he’s traded Saint Nick’s black boots for getas (a type of traditional Japanese footwear) and his fur-trimmed red hat for samurai headgear.

Ellen Endo, co-chair of the Little Tokyo Business Improvement District, stands alongside Shogun Santa. (Janet Nguyen/Marketplace)

Shogun Santa paraded through Little Tokyo in the 1980s, eventually packing up his sleigh until the Little Tokyo Business Association reintroduced him to the plaza in 2014. Mike Okamoto, the president of the Little Tokyo Business Association, currently dons the Shogun outfit. 

“We understand that it’s important for children today to have an image that reflects their own background,” said Ellen Endo, co-chair of the Little Tokyo Business Improvement District.

Okamoto recalls that his own granddaughter was once asked what she liked about Little Tokyo.

“She said, ‘Shogun Santa,’ and she doesn’t know that’s me,” he said, laughing.

Even in Japan, Endo and Okamoto said Santa is generally portrayed as white.

According to Tim Connaghan, Japan (along with China) will generally recruit Santas from America or England to cater to tourists.

Walton Yeung, a Northern California resident who stopped by to take photos with Shogun Santa, said he hadn’t conceived of an Asian or Japanese Santa before.

“It’s pretty refreshing to see,” he said.

Other Santas connect with families through language and shared traditions.

Rich Centeno, a children’s entertainer who has portrayed Santa for the past six years, said sometimes parents will stop by with their kids and tell them — in Spanish — what they should request from Santa. That’s his cue to start speaking Spanish himself.

“The parents don’t realize [I speak] Spanish. And I tell them I’m Hispanic, and they go, ‘Oh my God,’ ” he said.

Rich Centeno has been performing as Santa for about six years now. (Courtesy of Rich Centeno)

Centeno, who’s Mexican and Puerto Rican, will attend store openings, country clubs, malls, corporate events, restaurants and church functions. Though he’s based in St. Louis, Missouri, he’ll make a nearly 10-hour trek for events in Chicago during the holiday season.

Because of his background, Centeno said he can talk to children about traditions that are common in Latino culture, like Three Kings’ Day, or Epiphany, which commemorates Jesus Christ’s birth.

He’s also been incorporating sign language in his skillset.

“When I can speak their language, it adds a little bit for the children both in Spanish and in sign language,” Centeno said. “It adds just a little bit for their wonder, for their Christmas magic.

Centeno said the amount of gigs he’s getting has increased. He pointed out Santa Claus is supposed to be someone who travels around the world. So it makes sense he should reflect the people he visits.

Braxton realized that when he first started his business. He’s gotten requests from cities in California, Georgia and Michigan, and is on the lookout for even more Santas as part of his expanding business.

“I feel like [at] Christmastime, everybody should feel included,” he said.

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