Cast of Santas at Mall of America gets more diverse

Three person pose for a portrait
Larry Jefferson left, Allan Siu, center and Mitchell Mittelstaedt, right, pose for a portrait. They are part of the effort to diversify the Santa Expense at the Mall of America.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Updated: Dec. 21, 11:56 a.m. | Posted Dec. 20, 1:33 p.m.

Two-and-a-half-year-old Emilio is a little shy as he meets “Santa Herman.” Herman, whose real name is Mitchell Mittelstaedt, tries to get the toddler to tell him what kind of toys he wants from Santa. “Do you like soccer balls or cars or trains or Legos?” asks Herman in Spanish.

Emilio Melara discussed with Santa Herman
Emilio Melara discussed what to ask Santa Herman for Christmas at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. Nov. 21. Herman is bilingual and speaks Spanish.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

The toddler’s mother, Carolina Cano-Garnica, nudges Emilio along and, says in Spanish, “Tell him that you like planes.” 

“Yes, the planes!” Emilio says. 

To that, Santa Herman enthusiastically responds “Orale!” Or, Right on.

Cano-Garnica says Emilio attends bilingual Spanish immersion daycare and they speak English and Spanish at home. “It was really cool to listen to someone interact with him in Spanish and use the slang that we use and it made it, I think, a little less intimidating for Emilio,” she says.

The Santa Experience, which has two locations at the Mall of America, has expanded its racial, ethnic and linguistic representation of Santa Claus. Co-owners Rachael Zuleger and Landon Luther, who are both white, have hired an Asian American Santa who speaks in Cantonese and English.

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In addition to Santa Herman, who speaks English and Spanish, the company has for the first time two African American Santas at the same time — one of whom communicates in sign language.

Cano-Garnica browsed the Santa Experience website and found the Spanish speaking Santa, which she called “super cool.”

“I never really thought that we were being underrepresented until we started being represented. It just became something that we got used to.” she said.

Representation matters, said Richard Lee, professor of psychology and director of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Minnesota. He says while Black Santa has become a more common sight over the last decade, it’s rare to see an Asian American portray Santa Claus. He said St. Nick is an iconic figure while Asian Americans have been seen as foreigners.

“One could make the case that an Asian American Santa is pushing against this foreigner stereotype. An Asian American portraying Santa Claus also provides children with alternate narratives of who represents joy, love and charity,” Lee said. “These are not the values and behaviors limited to certain groups but can be embodied by Asian Americans.”

Enter “Santa Allan,” aka Allan Siu from the Dallas Area. He was recruited to The Santa Experience by “Santa Larry” who was the company’s first Black Santa in 2016. Siu says he wanted to make sure his son, now seven years old, saw a Santa that looked like him.

“Being Asian, well, I know that I'm not, the typical Santa. And then just to have this opportunity, it's just something I never imagined,” Siu  said. “So I'm just really grateful. Excited for it.”

To Luther, adding the various Santas of color and those who speak a second language was a natural step, “There's a lot of cultures that celebrate Christmas. And we wanted to represent all these cultures,” Luther said. “So really just being open minded to, you know, who wants to play this magical guy?”

When the Santa Experience added Santa Larry six years ago, Zuleger said they did not expect the swirl of local and national publicity that followed.

“We were a little gobsmacked by it, but it's just so much bigger than, you know, what we're doing here,” Luther said.

Myatta Flanagan, who is African American, is a big fan of Santa Larry. She and her children have visited with him over the years. Flanagan grew up in Coon Rapids, Minn., but now lives in Texas where Santa Larry, aka Larry Jefferson, is based. The Flanagans — Micah, age 7, and Elijah, age 6, have traveled to Minnesota to visit in-person with him for the first time since the pandemic started.

A person preparing before the photo session starts
Santa Larry speaks at elementary schools, colleges and major churches as well. “It's just been so fun and full and it enriched my life spiritually as well." he said.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

While the kids visit with Santa Larry in a room decorated to the hilt with Christmas decorations, he asks them some standard Santa questions. He asks if they are being good and listening to their parents, to which each child answers, ‘yes.’  

“Guess what?,” asks Santa Larry. “You're on the nice list!”

It means a lot to Micah and Elijah to meet with Santa Larry.

“They get so excited because he looks like them,” said Flanagan. “And it just makes holidays. It just makes it so special. That they can relate to him.”

Flanagan says engaging with an African American Santa Larry is important to her as well.

“It's something that I never had as a child growing up. And always wanted, but never had the opportunity,” she said.

Since his introduction to the Twin Cities, Santa Larry, who is based in Dallas says his schedule has been full and fast-paced. There’s not enough Santa Larry’s to go around, he says.

“I speak at elementary schools, I speak at colleges. And I meet at major churches to take pictures with children. And I'm also Santa Claus in Chicago at the Museum of Science and Industry.” Jefferson said. “But it's just been so fun and full and it enriched my life spiritually as well.”

Zuleger, co-owner of the Santa Experience, says she witnessed the impact of a racially diverse Santa Claus. She remembers in Santa Larry’s first year that a grandmother joined her grandkids for a visit with Jefferson.

“She was just crying in the corner,” Zuleger said. “And she just said, ‘I've never seen a Black Santa my whole life.' And this just means the world to me.’”

The grandmother, said Zuleger, joined in the family picture with Santa Larry.

“The best part for me was that the kid won't know any different. They won't know that at some point there wasn't a Black Santa to see,” Zuleger said. “That's how it should be.”

Correction (Dec. 21, 2022): A previous version of this story misspelled Mitchell Mittelstaedt’s name. The story has been updated.

North Star Journey was made possible in part with funds from the Legacy Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.