After receiving a hateful letter about his Black Santa Christmas decorations, one man decided to dress up as Santa so his daughter could see herself represented
Every year, Chris Kennedy proudly decorates his house with Black Santa Claus decor.
One year, a hateful, anonymous letter asked him to remove his decorations and to move to a different neighborhood.
Today, Kennedy is a professional Santa Claus and the primary Santa Claus in his town.
"Everyday people can't walk into a retailer and find a Black Santa Claus. You have to go to specialty shops, search for it online, or you have to spend really big money on it, when it should just be readily available for everybody," Chris Kennedy told Insider. Kennedy works as an amenities and events coordinator in North Little Rock, Arkansas, but during the Christmas holiday season, he takes on another role: Santa Christopher.
For the last two years, Kennedy has been Santa Claus at North Little Rock's Northern Lights Festival. The job, which he describes as both demanding and fulfilling, didn't come with a trouble-free start. In 2016, Kennedy's wife suffered pregnancy complications, which kept their daughter in the NICU for a week. During a shopping trip to Walmart, Kennedy came across a three-foot inflatable Black Santa, which he was certain would raise his wife's spirits. A couple years later, he found an eight-foot-tall Black Santa to make a bigger statement.
'All of this was to let my daughter see herself represented'
For three years, being the only house on the block with Black Christmas decor wasn't an issue, until a year of civil unrest erupted. In 2020, Kennedy received an anonymous letter asking him to remove his "Negro Santa Claus yard decoration" and that he should not try to "deceive children into believing that Santa Claus is 'a negro.'"
Kennedy quickly decided he would dress up as Santa for his daughter that year. "All of this was to let my daughter see herself represented," he said, noting that the nearest real-life Black Santa to take Christmas pictures with was in Houston at the time.
"Wholeheartedly, I feel like Black people have been left out of Christmas. When you look at the Hallmark channel, there's hardly ever a Black Christmas movie on there. There's hardly any Black characters in most Christmas movies at all."
Accompanied by his photo dressed as Santa, Kennedy shared the anonymous letter to Facebook. The response from his family and friends was immensely supportive, with neighbors opting for Black Santa Christmas decor of their own and bringing by cookies and cards. When the post went viral, an invitation to Santa Camp followed. "I knew that it was something that I could do to help other families that were always looking for Black Santas," he said of partaking in the program. "I wanted to make this investment and do it the right way, learn different tricks of the trade, and know how to run a Santa business, so to speak."
Santa Camp, a New Hampshire-based, two-day training program for Santas, Mrs. Clauses, and elves, is the go-to spot for Christmas professionals to perfect their skills. The camp is the focus of a new documentary, "Santa Camp," which was released on HBO Max last month.
Although Kennedy was the only Black Santa in attendance, he said, he felt welcomed by his peers. "Being around the other Santas was great. When they heard the letter, I think it broke some of their hearts, but they also wanted to help more," he said, one way, being open to conversations about representation.
The importance of representation
"It's very important for Black kids to grow up and see themselves represented," Kennedy said, noting that the people who seem to not understand the importance of representation are usually people who are highly represented in most aspects of life. To those who might ask what the significance is in representation of a fictional character, he has an answer: "Black kids experience everything other kids do. So we need to have stories and things to reflect all of that." For that reason, Kennedy's 6-year-old daughter takes on the role of an elf, and his wife, Mrs. Claus. In Kennedy's words, they take the job pretty seriously. "My daughter's elf name is Elfie, and she does everything from reporting on the kids at school and letting me know if they're doing good or acting up," he said. His wife often attends events and helps by reading to the children and calming them down while they wait to meet Santa. "So as long as the two of them are happy and loving doing it, I'll keep doing it," he said.
Aside from making his daughter happy, Kennedy has found his role as Santa transcends writing down what kids want to see under their tree. He's become a person that little Black kids feel comfortable with. "I can greet Black kids the way we greet each other and it takes that fear of meeting Santa Claus away when you say, 'what's up lil homie?'" It also makes the parents feel welcome, and the whole situation less tense, he said. In his own unique way, Kennedy has infused his culture into a character that so often only expresses a status-quo identity. Instead of the typical saying "ho ho ho," he greets children with "bro ho ho" – a tagline he learned from a fellow Black Santa. He also plays PJ Morton's Christmas album and prefers brownies over cookies.
The great thing about fictional characters is that they have the freedom to change and evolve over time. As Kennedy said: "We are nearly a thousand years into the story of Santa Claus and he has gone from St. Nicholas who was born in what's now Turkey and would've been brown, to being a jolly fat white guy with rosy cheeks, drinking Coca-Cola. Santa can now rap and eat brownies, and crack jokes with kids. If the story has changed that much, it can change again."
This December, Kennedy will be the primary Santa Claus for the Southwest Little Rock Christmas parade and the City of Maumelle Christmas parade.
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