Photo courtesy of D. Sinclair
For Warren Keyes, 66, the transformation from his regular self into Black Santa is all about getting the image exactly right.
The white beard? Natural. That booming “Ho! Ho! Ho!?” Perfected after eight years of playing Santa and dozens of years working as a voice artist and theater actor. The red suit? Straight from a Hollywood costume shop and at a cost of $1,000, a serious investment of which he takes meticulous care.
“I wanted to get the best,” he says. “It really gets attention when I go out.”
But unlike years past, Keyes — who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina — won’t be greeting kids in person. The Covid-19 pandemic means most of his interactions this holiday season will be virtual. Then, fold in 2020’s emphasis on equity and race this year in the United States, and it’s easy to see why the fuller palette of brown-skinned Santas is seeing a spike in demand. Consumer demand demands a Black Santa, and it is easier to book one digitally now due to the normalization of Covid-era Zooms.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” says Keyes, who is booked via Santas Like Me, a service based in the Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, area.
A visit to Black Santa tops the holiday to-do list for many socially conscious parents everywhere. But as with all things that concern reality versus advertising imagery, there is some whitewashing.
The original Santa was not White and was described as a brown-skinned man with Greek origins whose Christian ministry was in Turkey. He was reimagined as White and chubby-cheeked in 1860 by Harper’s Magazine. The Coca-Cola imagery followed in the 1900s. At that point, any original views of Santa — as an elf, as a child, and as a saint — were largely lost to the more commercial view of the saint.
Photo courtesy of Warren Keyes
Some people don’t take kindly to Santa diversity, as was illustrated this month in the news as a family in Little Rock, Arkansas was targeted in early December after placing a Black Santa in their decorations. Their neighbors clapped back, with several more placing their own Black Santas on display in a show of solidarity. The same happened in 2013 when cable news anchor Megyn Kelly set off a firestorm of controversy when she insisted, during a live broadcast, that Santa was White. Pop culture saw an enormous clapback and a series of historical articles detailing Santa’s origins.
That said, Black Santas have been working in malls as far back as the 1940s in Harlem and Chicago.
“So many of the families are so appreciative to see a Santa represent them,” says Stafford Brown, who formed Santas Like Me in 2013 to fill the need for Black Santas. “Representation is important because we are as much part of Christmas as anyone else.”
It’s more than putting on a red suit, says Kevin Nolan, 45, who is known in the St. Louis, Missouri, area as Cocoa Santa.
“It’s entertaining (kids) and giving them these memories,” says Nolan.
Chicago resident Andre Russell, aka Dreezy Claus, said when it became apparent the spread of the virus wasn’t slowing down, he made the decision to suspend in-person visits and focus on virtual bookings and outdoor events.
Business is booming, with calls for visits coming from all over the country, including California.
Russell, a behavioral interventionist at a South Side charter school, says his experience doing virtual check-ins with past customers prior to the pandemic was helpful when it became clear the bulk of his business would be online. His clients see Dreezy Claus, a Santa with a natural salt-and-pepper beard and matching ’locs. No matter the nature of the request — virtual or in-person — the goal is to uphold the values of Santa, which include patience and a genuine passion for the job, he adds.
“You’re playing an iconic character,” says Russell, who began performing three years ago as a Black Santa. “You’re playing a rockstar. Kids will either run to or run from you.”
In Atlanta, D. Sinclair, 56, is known as “the Real Black Santa” — and he’s certainly earned the title. For nearly 20 years Sinclair has made appearances around town as Santa, most notably at the airport’s Toyland at Hartsfield (formerly Holiday at Hartsfield).
A former insurance salesman, playing Santa now is a full-time, year-round business that involves Sinclair’s wife, children, and extended family members. He is typically booked and busy in a job that has become a ministry of sorts.
“That’s why we’re [Black Santas] still a novelty. Because there are so many people… who don’t believe that St. Nick was Black.”
Where some Santas are now struggling because of the coronavirus, Sinclair says the years-long slow death of the mall motivated him to pursue other avenues for business such as mobile/drive-through visits. He’s now teamed up with JingleRing to do virtual appearances.
Sinclair says he relates closely to the story of St. Nicholas, a bishop in the early Christian church upon whom the story of Santa Claus is based. Born to wealthy Greek parents, Nicholas followed Jesus’ command and gave away his fortune to help the needy and sick. He is regarded as a protector of children and the patron saint of sailors.
Like Nicholas, Sinclair also is strongly rooted in his Christian faith. And both are brown-skinned, something that White Santas don’t acknowledge, Sinclair says. Historians have described the original St. Nick was a “light Brown man of color” with ministerial origins in what is now known as Turkey. Also, as National Geographic reports, “Nicholas was neither fat nor jolly.”
“That’s why we’re [Black Santas] still a novelty,” he says. “Because there are so many people… who don’t believe that St. Nick was Black.”
Throughout his career as a Black Santa, Sinclair says he’s helped mentor other Black Santas. He founded Santas of Color Coalition, a Facebook-based networking group for Black Santas. About 20 Santas are in the group, but there are more.
“There are a lot of Black Santas out there,” he says. “There’s a lot of guys out there [playing Santa] through their churches, through their communities.”
Many take on the role only during the holiday season. But it’s deeper for Sinclair, who started growing gray hair in his teens.
“My destiny was to be Santa Claus,” he says, “and I’m Santa 365 days a year.”