Black Santa Matters

For the first time in its quarter of a century history, the Mall of America has a Black Santa Claus. This year’s Santa is Larry Jefferson, a retired army vet from Texas who’s been playing the big man in red since the tender age of 12. Landon Luther, owner of Santa Experience, was looking for “a Santa for everyone” and selected Jefferson at a Santa Convention where he was the only African-American out of 1,000 Kris Kringles. This. Is. Awesome.

What’s not so awesome? The racist trolls who made insulting remarks on a CBS Minnesota report on the story. Things got so bad that the comments function had to be turned off.  The Star Tribune turned theirs off before the article was even published, anticipating a racist backlash. Some white supremacists even called for a boycott on Mall of America. That’s fine. I don’t want them in the line to see Father Christmas with my daughter any more than I want those who hate transgender people in the bathroom with me at Target.

Some of the rhetoric is less blatantly hateful, but equally insidious. Take this argument: “I understand the need for inclusiveness, but in the story, Santa was white.” To be honest, tradition is a poor excuse for leaving people out. Especially when that tradition is factually inaccurate. Santa Claus is based on St. Nicholas, a Greek Christian bishop known for his generous giving to the poor. He was born in what is now Turkey and is usually depicted as having tan or olive skin. The “jolly old elf” who drives a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer (what we think of as the “traditional” story) was brought to us in 1823 by Clement C. Moore’s A Visit From St. Nicholas. We got our current (white) image of Santa Claus from Thomas Nast’s 1881 drawing, which was co-opted and popularized by…Coca-Cola.

Another problematic argument: “It shouldn’t matter what color Santa is.” That’s true – it shouldn’t matter. It’s the adults that are making it an issue. As Jefferson himself says, “It’s no big deal. I’m still Santa, I just happen to be a Santa of color.” The kids are fine with it.  Jefferson describes a time when a little boy pointed out that he was brown. He simply explained that Santas come in many colors. The kid replied “Oh!”, took his candy cane, and went on his merry way. For some children, however, having a Black Santa is a big deal, and for a very important reason. They finally have a Santa who looks like them.

This is a momentous occasion to be lauded. Frankly, it’s a long time coming. But still, the Mall of America is the largest mall in the nation. I realize Santas of color are nothing new, but it’s great to have one become mainstream. As my daughter gets older, she’ll have the opportunity to sit on the laps of many different Santa Clauses. If she asks me why they don’t all look the same, I’ll explain (as Jefferson does) that Santa is a reflection of all of us. What matters is the spirit of St. Nicholas in each of the Santas: the joy of selfless giving. My only requirement for Santa? Someone who radiates love. And Santa Larry does just that.