Talk of the Town

Talk of the Town is a blog about life in Atlanta. You’ll find features on people, places and events that local people (and the world) are talking about. Plus, you’ll find newsy scoops on things people should be talking about.

Does it matter if Santa is black or white?

Last week, Mall of America welcomed its first African-American Santa Claus.

Larry Jefferson made history as the first Santa of color in the mall's 24 year history.

While news of Jefferson's appointment made the rounds, Jefferson said he was humbled by all the attention.

"It gives the kids an opportunity to have a Santa who looks like them," Jefferson said to WCCO. "It gives them something to identify with, but Santa is still just Santa."

Jefferson's Santa stint at the largest mall in the country was only four days -- from Thursday to Sunday -- but his appointment caused an online uproar.

Just a few hours after the Minneapolis Star Tribune posted a profile of Jefferson -- a retired Army veteran who has played Santa for 17 years -- the newspaper had to turn off comments for the story. No explanation was given for disabling comments, but the reporter for the story said it is a routine to turn off comments for stories that deal with race and public safety.

Judging from the (still accessible) comments posted to the online version of the WCCO story and comments that cropped up on social media, it seems not everyone was happy to see Santa Larry.

Comments ranged from those who argued that Santa Claus or rather, Saint Nicholas, is white. Others argued that a character is just a character and therefore can have many representations. Some suggested a black Santa would be confusing to children, others said, that depends on who your children are.

If this all sounds familiar, you've probably been around these parts for a while.

More than a decade ago, in October 2001 when the Mall at Stonecrest first opened its doors in Lithonia, there was a white Santa on hand to welcome visitors for the holiday season.

But after African-American shoppers requested a black Santa, their wish was granted and the mall began a two Santa tradition -- one black and one white.

 This didn't necessarily sit well with everyone.

The first year, black shoppers didn't like the mall's decision to call the white Santa "traditional Santa" and the black Santa "cultural Santa."

"We don't want to call him Cultural Santa --- we want to call him African-American Santa, " said Stonecrest marketing director, Donald Bieler in a 2002 interview with the AJC . "And what we would consider Traditional Santa, we call Santa. So the Mall at Stonecrest has Santa and African-American Santa."

The Santas at Stonecrest worked different shifts which sometimes resulted in white customers exiting the line when black Santa came on duty and black customers hanging out to wait until white Santa finished his shift.

The white Santa told the Chicago Tribune in 2003 that he saw about the same number of black and white children. The black Santa said 95 percent of the kids jumping on his lap and sharing their Christmas wishes were black or hispanic.

Stonecrest was likely the first, if not the only mall in the metro area, to take such a unique approach to mall Santas. Most other local malls have only offered up one option for Santa with malls like Greenbriar Mall, the Mall West End and South DeKalb Mall -- all located in predominantly black communities --having a long history of employing African-American Santas.

The Mall West End was one of the first shopping centers in the country to hire a black Santa in the early 1970s. Not only is Santa black, he wears a less traditional Santa suit and goes by the name "Kente Santa."

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About the Author

Nedra Rhone has been a features reporter with the AJC for 10 years. She’s written about everything from fashion to food to news.