As a child, Dee Sinclair never went to the mall to see Santa. But he did see an opportunity 17 years ago when, during a class to get his license to sell insurance renewed, the instructor happened to mention that he made $28,000 as a Santa during the holiday season.
“I was astonished,” Sinclair tells Yahoo Lifestyle after calculating that Santa only works for about two months of the year. “So I grew my beard from May to November and started doing Santa Claus and I haven’t looked back since.”
The 55-year-old father of four is now known as Atlanta’s “Real Black Santa,” making appearances at local events; his family-run operation sometimes features cameos from his mom as Mrs. Claus and his granddaughter and youngest daughter as elves.
Sinclair — who says he likes to “have fun with the kids” by reading stories and doing magic tricks — is just one of several black Santas making the holiday season more diverse and giving kids of color a Kris Kringle who looks like them. While, as the BBC has noted, there’s a long history of black men donning Santa’s famous red suit — the “Chocolate Santa” of New Orleans, Fred Parker, has been in the ho-ho-ho game for 46 years — the trend has been slow to go mainstream until recently. The Mall of America hired its first black Santa in 2016, and the “Find Black Santa” app now helps parents find St. Nick in cities like Kalamazoo, Mich., which welcomed its first black Santa this year.
In Texas, it’s teacher and actor Kelvin Douglas, 50, holding down the North Pole fort at Black Santa Houston, a new initiative and photo session series founder Magan Butler-Coleman says she started so her 2-year-old son could “have an opportunity to meet a Santa that looks like my family.”
Like Sinclair — who says he “never saw a black Santa until I put the suit on” — Douglas grew up with the traditional rosy-cheeked image that dominates pop culture. As a first-time Santa himself, however, he “really realized how much of a need there was in our community and how much joy that it brought not only to the kids but also to the parents.”
“It’s really bigger than us,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “You realize what you’re doing for kids in order to give them an opportunity to see a Santa that looks like them.”
Not that every visitor who comes to see Santa is necessarily a person of color. While Butler-Coleman says Black Santa Houston is especially popular with African-American families, those with a biracial background and white adoptive parents with black children, there’s a “great diversity of families” that includes white families. The response, she says, has been overwhelming.
“Five years of Santa pics and these are the ones that make my heart skip a beat,” a recent customer testimonial gushed.
As a veteran black Santa, Sinclair says he also gets positive feedback from the community rather than pushback, though there was one incident at a mall when he alternated shifts with a white Santa, to the disappointment of one mom.
“I wasn’t the Santa she was looking for,” Sinclair, who drives for Uber outside of his Santa gig, recalls. “She said, ‘Let’s go, he’s not the Santa we’re looking for.’ And the little girl said to her mom, ‘It’s Santa, come on, let’s go.’ She’s like, ‘But that’s not the Santa we want.’ And the little girl was like, ‘But it’s Santa! But it’s Santa!’
“And I tell folks this all the time. Kids don’t see color. They see the fat man in a red suit and he’s going to bring me gifts. That’s what they see. They don’t see color until their parents or society or their friends say, ‘Oh, he’s not black,’ or ‘He’s white,’ or whatever the case may be. They see the fat man in the red suit. It’s just that simple.”
And then there’s the Megyn Kelly controversy. In 2013 the former Fox News anchor made headlines when she insisted that “Santa just is white,” a comment Charlize Theron, who plays Kelly in Bombshell, admitted she found “hard” reenacting as mom to two black children. Sinclair, however, found the ensuing uproar to be good for business.
“I was real happy when she said that and CNN Googled ‘black Santa’ and found me,” he jokes of his brush with TV fame.
For the most part, the job of being a black Santa is about what you’d expect. There are the crying babies. There’s what Douglas calls the “priceless” experience of having kids light up when they see St. Nick. There are the beards.
While he’s not the only black Santa in Houston — which is also home to the Tex-Mex “Pancho Claus” — Douglas’s natural beard gives him a leg up on any wig-wearing competition.
“I was destined to be Santa,” agrees Sinclair, whose fluffy white beard is also his own. “The Lord gave me this destiny from a very young age. When I was 16 I grew my beard for the very first time and it came out salt and pepper ... I never colored my beard, it’s always been gray.”
Read more from Yahoo Lifestyle: