The first time Vivian Walker met a Santa the same color as she is, she was 41.
“My first time, in the flesh,” Walker said. “I’d seen him in pictures, but I’d never in the flesh seen a black Santa.”
Walker grew up seeing a photo of a black Santa at her little brother’s day care, and wishing she could meet him. When she had a baby in early 2012, Walker said she wanted to make sure her little boy got his chance.
She drove eight hours round-trip from Cleveland to Detroit so she and her baby could meet their first black Santa.
“Oh my God, it felt empowering,” Walker said. “We both got to see it at the same time. It was unbelievable.”
Walker, 48, now runs Black Santa Directory, a Facebook group she started in late 2016. The group has almost 1,900 members who alert each other to events featuring Santas of color, or pool resources to create their own.
A middle school counselor by day, Walker runs the group with Dr. Jihan Woods, 36, a Dallas psychiatrist who launched a Find Black Santa app in 2018.
“We know that children start to become aware of race in first or second grade,” Woods said. “So these small things that parents can do to be more intentional about what they expose their kids to can really build their kid’s development.”
Looking for Santa
When Barbara Mullen was 8, she watched her father put on a red suit to give gifts to children in transitional housing in San Francisco.
Mullin said that for her, seeing an African American Santa means children, particularly boys, can see themselves in a loving, caring figure.
“Yes, there’s a naughty and a nice list, but it’s really about your character,” Mullen said. “It’s like what Martin Luther King said. It’s about the content of your character, not the color of your skin.”
Mullen, 36, now organizes her sorority chapter’s annual Christmas event in Providence, Rhode Island. While Santa is the main draw, the chapter uses the event to connect black, Latino and immigrant families to local health and community organizations.
She lends her collection of figurines and plates featuring black Santas, taking time from being an educator and a trustee of Rhode Island’s Board of Education to make gift bags.
The $10 photo fee pays for the sorority’s community fair, but such an event is expensive to organize.
“It’s a lot of Google spreadsheets,” Mullen said. “A lot of what you see in the mall (with Santa events), that is a lot of money.”
Playing the part
While there are professional Santas, the cost of hiring them means some events rely on volunteers to put on the red suit.
Melvin Rhoden Jr., a 44-year-old logistics manager in Queen Creek, Arizona, dressed as Santa for the first time this year at a fundraising event for a local boys’ empowerment organization. At first, the father of three said, he wasn’t sure how to play Santa.
“You have to get used to being dressed as Santa,” Rhoden said. “The kids are like, ‘Santa, Santa, Santa!’ But the adults’ joy — that part right there brought the joy to me.”
He noticed that people weren’t asking for just a photo or two of Santa with their child, but parents and teenagers were piling in, too, excited for their first photo with Santa.
Rhoden said he became aware of Walker’s Black Santa Directory after a visitor told him he had driven from Las Vegas, about five hours away.
“From that Facebook page I have gotten some tips on how I can make myself better with regards to my outfit,” Rhoden said. “They gave me pointers on how to be next year.”
‘Black Santa is Santa’
Walker said she has been unable to find public events featuring a black Santa in 10 states, including New Hampshire, Maine and Alaska, but that she sees progress in the roughly 300 events she’s counted on Black Santa Directory this year alone.
“There are way more Santas than I ever could have imagined,” Walker said.
She encourages families, regardless of race, to visit with black, Asian and Latino Santas, among others.
“Black Santa is Santa,” Walker said.