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

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Santa Larry Jefferson stands for a portrait.
The demand for Santa Larry at the Mall of America has been so high this season that some families booked photos with him back in October.
Evan Frost | MPR News

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.

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."

Titan and Sadiq sit on Santa Larry’s lap during a recent visit.
Titan, 6 months, and Sadiq, 2, sit on Santa Larry's lap during a recent visit.
Courtesy of Tisa Mitchell

Hudson grew up in Illinois. Like many African-American families, his didn't have the chance to take pictures of visits with a black 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."

Tiny replicas of Santa Larry Jefferson sit on a shelf.
Tiny replicas of Santa Larry Jefferson sit on a shelf inside The Santa Experience inside the Mall of America.
Evan Frost | MPR News

A longtime Santa, Santa Sid, met Jefferson at a Santa convention and recruited him.

Having Jefferson join the team of Santas was mostly met with positive vibes. But news of his arrival back in 2016 didn't go without controversy.

The Star Tribune turned off the comment section on the story after reportedly receiving offensive remarks.

And it wasn't the first time some people reacted negatively to the idea of a black Santa.

In 2013, Aisha Harris wrote a piece for Slate Magazine titled "Santa Claus should not be a white man anymore."

Harris wrote about the difficulty of growing up without a black Santa. She suggested abandoning the image of a white, rosy-cheeked Santa, and instead creating a new symbol: a Christmas penguin.

It was a joke. But Megyn Kelly wasn't laughing.

"By the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white," Kelly said on Fox News as she debated the topic with three guests. She made headlines and created a firestorm. There was a skit about it on Saturday Night Live.

Two years later, the ABC show "Fresh Off the Boat" presented a new twist — Santa as an Asian woman.

The image of a white man portraying Santa has been implanted in most minds for decades. It was illustrated by political cartoonist Thomas Nast based on his imagination of the 19th-century poem "The Night Before Christmas."

Maria Tatar, a professor of folklore at Harvard University, says Santa was never a monolithic figure, and there are genial figures associated with modern-day Santa Claus — like Ghost of Christmas Past and Father Christmas.

Until recently, when one of her students gave her a children's book titled "Santa's Husband," which is a story about a black and white gay couple.

"The great thing about the myths and of folktales and all of our cultural stories is that we keep making them new," she said. "If we told the same old story over and over again the tale would shrivel up and die. It would become completely uninteresting to us."

The characteristic generosity, however, comes from Saint Nicholas, the Greek bishop from modern-day Turkey. In available images, he has olive skin and brown eyes.

"He kind of looks like me," Jefferson said with a smile. "Someone posted a picture of Saint Nicholas and my picture side by side, and was like, 'Santa Larry, you look more like Saint Nicholas than anybody.'"

So it's not surprising that more Santas of color are taking on the job — and that families are flocking to the malls to see them.

Karen Boschetti of Maplewood brought her 5-year-old son Cameron, who's biracial, to see Santa Larry.

"It should be normal," she said. "It's important for him to see somebody who looks like him. He talks about his brown skin and we talk about how beautiful his skin is and I think it's really great that they're representing that here."

Parents like Tisa Mitchell of St. Paul say they've waited years for the mall to have someone like Santa Larry. Holding her 6-month-old son, she couldn't hold back tears.

"Our children need to see that we are everywhere," she said. "Christmas is black and I do get a little emotional because you don't see this every day."

The demand for more African-American Santas is so high that Jihan Woods created an app called "Find Black Santa." Woods is a licensed psychiatrist in Texas and a mother of 3-year-old twin boys.

"When I developed this project I did delve into some research about how children perceive their own identities and how that impacts them in the long run," she said. "Kids who have a positive sense of their own identity have better academic scores, they have higher self-esteem, they participate in less risky behavior."

Santa Larry has already left town, but he'll be back next year. In fact, he's thinking about buying a winter home in Minnesota. And if you're from Texas, as he is, that's almost the North Pole.