The burden and blessing of being a black Santa

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The people who play the man in the big red suit say it’s the best job in the world.

Although they’re only employed for about two months of the year, it certainly doesn’t stop these dedicated men from donning long white beards and red velvet jumpsuits.

But a few men across the U.S. are attempting to challenge the iconic image of Santa Claus, with the simple phrase: “Why can’t Santa be black?”

Dion “Santa Dee” Sinclair  has started an entire business around the image of the African-American Santa Claus. Sinclair, along with his two other black Santa Clauses, Santa Bob and Santa Tee, have provided the same Santa magic to children in multicultural communities in Atlanta, Georgia. Sinclair believes it’s important for children, especially minorities, to have a prominent icon they can culturally identify with.

“A black Santa is something that they can associate with. It’s black Santa, and I’m a black person,” Sinclair told theGrio in a phone interview. “[These kids] can associate with having a black Santa or a black angel on the Christmas tree because they’re black.  There shouldn’t always be a white angel or a white Santa.”

Having grey hair since he was a child and a”salt and pepper” beard in high school, Sinclair said that becoming the iconic role of  Santa Claus was his destiny. Now, this southern Santa has turned his ‘destiny’ into a family-run business hiring everyone in his family from his mother who plays Mrs. Claus to his youngest daughter who stars as Elf Gigi.

Santa Dee with Elf Gigi (Courtesy of Dion Sinclair)

Santa Dee with Elf Gigi (Courtesy of Dion Sinclair)

Sinclair, who has been in the industry for 11-years, has come across children and parents alike who are surprised to see an African-American Santa Claus. Sinclair, in response, always  refers to his favorite poem called “Can Santa be Black?”

Written by BJ Wrights, the poem tells a whimsical story about how Santa can take the shape and form of any physical appearance. An excerpt from the poem reads:

“My skin has been black, white, yellow, red, brown;
My eyes have been slanted, crossed, and round.
Sometimes I have been a she:
All these things are a part of me.”

This poem, Sinclair adds, helps children understand  that the fantasy of Santa Claus can be “anything you want him to be.”

The Atlanta-based Santa, who is a member of many of the prominent Santa Claus communities, hopes that other men of minority backgrounds, such as Asians and Hispanics, will also join him and don the famous red suit so they can also represent their communities.

“It’s very hard to find a Hispanic or even an Oriental Santa Claus. I haven’t been able to find one, but it’d be great if there were some out there,” he says.

Across the country in Brooklyn, New York, another black Santa is paving the way for his community as one of only multicultural Santas in the area.

As a prominent community leader, Anthony Newerls has been playing Santa Claus, along with his three African-American elves, at the Atlantic terminal mall for six-years. One of his colleagues suggested that Newerls play Santa Claus at their local mall due to his big personality, his dedication to the children and of course — he fits the suit.

“It makes me feel proud and I  think this gives every generation the opportunity to connect just with history,” Newerls said. “I’m very proud that they can come to the mall in their community or in their borough and identify with the same individual that they see in their home on a daily basis.”

Newerls says that although the Brooklyn community has positively embraced his role as an African-American Santa Claus, he has been met with some parents who do not want their children taking pictures with a black Santa.

“It’s a problem for certain individuals,” he says. “They do come believing they’re going to  find a white Santa and it surprises them when they see me and it deters them from taking this photo…It makes me realize we haven’t moved as far as we wouldn’t like to in society.”

Sinclair agrees that his appearance also surprises some parents when families see him at the local malls in Atlanta.

“Kids don’t see color – They see the fat man in the red suit.” Sinclair says. “I’ve had parents come out and they’re looking to see [his colleague] Santa Jack who is white and they see me sitting in the chair and they’re like snatching the kids and walking away… Kids don’t see color until their parents dictate color or say that this color is bad or they make an emphasis about race.”

Not only does Sinclair face discrimination from parents, but his race has also deterred him from working at certain venues. He says that some malls in the wealthier, suburban areas of Atlanta are not welcome to hosting a black Santa.

“It’s hard as an African-American Santa because a lot the venues are not as open to us,” Sinclair says. “Not that many folks are looking to see an African-American Santa so we end up getting jobs at  what’s considered in an African-American mall – you know the lower income malls, the smaller areas.”

But despite the adversities, both Sinclair and Newerls have made it their mission to spread the same holiday cheer and Santa magic to children of all backgrounds like every dedicated Santa Claus.

Follow Brittany Tom  on Twitter @brittanyrtom