As a flurry of fake snow fell upon Main Street, U.S.A. at Disneyland and Walt Disney World this year, guests spotted something that had never been seen before: a Black Santa.
Disney is just the latest in a series of major companies making the move to implement diversity and inclusion in their holiday celebrations. Representation in the media and in popular culture has long been problematic and complicated — but the tables are finally turning. Earlier this year, Marvel Studios' The Eternals made an unprecedented move to introduce to the big screen both an openly gay and deaf superhero that challenged our notions of just what a hero should look like.
When it comes to Jolly Old Saint Nick — a real life hero in the eyes of children — many would be surprised to learn that the early depictions of Santa were not white. That all changed with a 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly where a Civil War cartoonist characterized Santa in print as the white round-faced version seen in modern imagery today.
The ability to visit non-white Santas is just the tip of the iceberg as representation further trickles down to merchandise surrounding the holidays. Retailer Old Navy made headlines this year by releasing a line of Christmas pajamas featuring Black Santas and has since expanded with additional patterns and more inclusive skin tones.
Ashley Capel is a mother and creator of the Instagram account @blacksantaexists. The account is dedicated to showcasing Capel's store-bought Black Santa finds — from dolls to décor — as well as supporting small online businesses who craft homemade designs.
"I'm just a mom of three little Black boys who wanted to make sure that we had Black Santas in our house," Capel tells Yahoo Life, "and that our boys could see a Santa that looks like them."
Coby Owens, a community activist from Wilmington, Del., also took matters into his own hands. Owens portrays Santa for his community's annual "Santa is Coming to Town" event — a donation-based event that delivers gifts to children in neighborhoods hit hard by COVID-19.
For Owens, it all goes back to his grandmother, who collected Black Santas.
"Unfortunately growing up, that was one of the few places I did see Black Santas," says Owens. "When I went to parades, stores or watched television, I didn't see a Santa that looked like me. So, sometimes it felt as though Santa wasn't meant for me or someone that looks like me."
Owens believes the event is setting a wonderful example for local children and especially enjoys their reactions to seeing a Santa they identify with.
"Representation is extremely important," he explains. "Our community has been going through so much, from a pandemic to gun violence: It's great to forget about all of it for a night and celebrate giving back and joy. The reaction of the kids makes it 100 percent worth it."
The long-awaited move to inclusivity isn't limited to just Father Christmas. Natasha Huang Smith is a mom and digital marketing consultant whose son, Jackson, adores the popular toy Elf on the Shelf in various shades of skin tones.
"Growing up in a traditional Chinese family, my parents didn't make a huge deal out of Christmas," says Huang Smith, "so whenever we did the Santa photos or meet and greets, it was a huge treat."
Still, Huang Smith admits, prior to celebrating the holidays with her son, she hadn't given much thought to Santa's typically white appearance.
"To be completely honest, I never knew Santa to look any other way than an old white dude with a belly and a beard," she says.
Huang Smith's family currently resides in Florida where Jackson has had opportunities to visit both a white Santa and a tropical Santa, a Santa wearing a Hawaiian shirt and lei.
"I'd love to take Jackson to see a Chinese Santa," she says. "I think the world is changing and I anticipate that there will be more diverse Santas in the years to come which makes me really happy to hear."
While Asian Santas prove to be much more of a rare find, there are some events that offer them around the country. California families yearning for nostalgia during the holidays are briefly bringing the popular '80s Shogun Santa — a Japanese Santa — back to Los Angeles' Little Tokyo, while an Asian Santa appears for one day only in Seattle, Wash. at the Wing Luke Asian Museum.
Houston, Tex. icon Pancho Claus is somewhat of a local celebrity who has been bringing happiness and joys to at-risk families for four decades. A hero of the area's large Latin population, the "Tex-Mex Santa," also known as Richard Reyes, delivers over 10,000 presents to children and families in need.
Proving that not all heroes wear capes, Reyes does it in a zoot suit while parading through the streets during a festive extravaganza. Over the last decade, those efforts have turned into a year-round non-profit organization that operates youth programs, including art enrichment classes.
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Implementing inclusion isn't without its logistical complications. According to a "Santa Census" conducted by The Tampa Bay Times in 2017, less than 5 percent of the professional Santas that work at meet and greets in malls and at other celebrations are Hispanic, Asian or Black.
Tanya Acker, a judge and co-host of the nationally syndicated television show Hot Bench, never forgot her memories as a young child in search of Black Santa.
"My parents would drive me across town to find a Black Santa," Acker says. "I don't know how they found the ones they did — there were no Black Santa Facebook groups and in fact, there was no Facebook."
Acker says she knows firsthand that it's important for kids to see someone that looks like them.
"My parents always worked very hard to combat the negative imagery that the larger society sometimes promoted about African-Americans," says the host of the Tanya Acker Show podcast. "If young people of color only see heroes that look like others while all the bad guys and the villains and the dangerous folks look like them, it really can wound their psyche and sense of self-esteem."
"I'm glad that the idea of the non-white hero is no longer so rare," Acker adds.
Kevin Nolan, also known as Cocoa Santa, is a popular fixture in the St. Louis, Mo. area.
"As a child, I don't remember seeing a Santa of color," says Nolan. "My mother kept the spirit of Christmas alive in our house, and as an adult and father I wanted to continue and grow on this trend. I love seeing the smiles on the faces of children and adults."
Nolan says he's also currently at work on a "Santa stories" YouTube series to bring Black Santa representation beyond his area and onto the internet.
To some, Christmas may be another commercialized holiday full of frivolity and fantasy. To Nolan, it is much more.
"Representation matters," he says. "Even to Santa."
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