Santas of color, once met with controversy, now in high demand

Published 8:51 am Friday, December 14, 2018

By Riham Feshir

MPR News/90.1 FM

Ask most children what Santa looks like and the answer isn’t surprising. He wears a red and white hat. He has a white beard and white hair. He has on black boots and a belt.

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But asked the same question on a recent morning at the Mall of America in Bloomington, 3-year-old Emery, 6-year-old Troy and 3-year-old Arthur answered: “Black.”

“Kind of like the real one,” added Troy.

Their parents were happy to hear them mention Santa Larry’s skin color. Some had talked to their children about race and ethnicity. Others hadn’t, and were pleased when their preschoolers recognized the difference between a white Santa and a black Santa.

“We all as adults know that it’s a made-up character,” said Troy Hudson of Minnetonka. “So I think they should have that opportunity to have whoever they want to see in their head be portrayed as Santa.”

Hudson grew up in Illinois. Like many African-American families, his didn’t have the chance to take pictures of visits with Santa. Many African-American families would tap grandpas and uncles to play the role.

So when Larry Jefferson began his gig as the first-ever African-American Santa at the Mall of America’s Santa Experience in 2016, families of color couldn’t wait to see him.

The Santa Experience is appointment-based. The demand for Santa Larry has been so high this season that some families booked photos with him back in October.

“They need that positive image so they can say, ‘If he or she can do that, I can do that,’” said Jefferson, a Texan who worked at the mall for 11 days. “I would like to see more Santas of color, whether African-American, Hispanic, Asian.”

Dressed in a red tracksuit, glasses and a hat, Jefferson is always in his Santa role even before he puts on his actual Santa suit. He worked nonstop while in Minnesota — wrangling toddlers, soothing babies with the popular “Baby Shark” song, and telling school-aged children to listen to their parents and teachers.

Rachael Zuleger, co-owner of The Santa Experience, said the business was ready to expand and add on an African-American Santa. But it was hard to find a real-bearded, African-American Santa.

“That was important to us, too, because of just the quality and authenticity of it,” she said. “For the magical aspect of, he’s just as real as you or I. He is Santa.”