The significance of Black Santa

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Back in 2017, a little boy in Texas wanted to have his picture taken with Santa. However, the little boy’s mother, Magan Butler-Coleman, wanted the Santa in question to look like her son. She needed a Black Santa. The search took almost two years, but eventually, a mutual friend introduced Butler-Coleman to Kelvin Douglas, an educator in the state and a perfect candidate to don the big red suit and play the part.

Douglas agreed — and the whole experience went off without a hitch for the delighted youngster. It was such a hit that Butler-Coleman was inspired to do more, and, as Douglas recently told theGrio, “Next thing you know, it became a business.”

“We were all surprised by the level of interest,” Butler-Coleman noted. “I knew we had something.”

Since the Black Santa Houston launched in 2019, Douglas has gone on to re-create that experience for countless Black children throughout the country. From being featured in The New York Times to appearing on the Drew Barrymore Show, he’s covered a lot of ground.

“It’s a lot of love and pride that I get out of being able to be that reflection for so many kids and families,” said Douglas — and he’s not alone.

Gone are the days of Santa Claus only being depicted and performed as an old white man with a big belly; Black Santas can now be found at aspirational destinations like Disney World and beyond. Santa also isn’t just Black and white; these days, he is as diverse as the children who believe in him. Even Macy’s iconic Santaland experience has expanded its offerings to include a Black Santa and a Spanish-speaking Santa, with more options in the works.

“At Macy’s, we believe that Santa is all things to all people who find joy in his goodness and kindness,” Kathleen Wright, the director of production operations for Macy’s Santaland, told theGrio over email. “We treasure the memories that families have made and shared with us over the years and enjoy being able to accommodate requests from near and far.”

When you can’t get to a Macy’s that offers the Santaland experience, that’s where performers such as Douglas come in. In addition to traditional Santa meet-and-greets, the Black Santa Houston offers a Black Santa experience for corporate and private events and holiday photo shoots. Douglas said during the holiday season, he starts his long, jolly days at 8 a.m., setting the mood with Christmas music before greeting children and their parents. Some of the children are bursting with excitement, some are shy, and, of course, some cry — but he ensures that all leave with a timeless memory of a Santa who looks like them.

Douglas credits Butler-Coleman with instilling the importance of offering all families a high-quality experience.

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The Black Santa Houston strives to improve representation for Black children around the holidays. (Photo courtesy of The Black Santa Houston)

“So years from now, when these kids look at these pictures, whether they’re laughing in the picture or crying, it’s going to be something that they reflect on, and it’s gonna be a great memory for them for years to come,” he said. “To just think that I’m a part of that is a very humbling experience.”

As an educator, Douglas is also keenly aware of how the timeless holiday memories he now helps create can have a lasting impact on children’s imaginations and conceptions of what they can be.

“It is crucial because it gives them that reinforcement that they can be anything that they want to be, and that’s important,” he said.

He explained that when children don’t see themselves reflected in roles in society such as doctors, lawyers, teachers, entertainers, and so forth, they start to develop an internal narrative telling them they could never be those things.

He added, “So when they begin to see Black Santas and Black doctors and Black lawyers and Black teachers, they know that they can also become that themselves — and even a Black president. It’s important that [Black children] always see themselves reflected in society.”

It’s not just the children who are benefitting from the representation; Butler-Coleman said families travel from around the country to Houston for her Santa experience, and not just for their children.

“They want their children to have this experience. But what I have learned is it’s actually also the parents wanting an experience they didn’t have as a child. So they are all having full circle-of-life moments with the children, and it is beautiful,” she explained.

Since the Black Santa Houston’s launch, the company has experienced significant growth. Due to demand, the operation now includes four different Santa performers and three different Mrs. Claus performers. Last year, Butler-Coleman, whose background is in healthcare finance, secured her first commercial space for the company, officially establishing Santa’s home base in Houston. The business was also awarded the Wells Fargo Open for Business Grant through The Houston Equity Fund.

Building on the success and popularity of The Black Santa Houston, Butler-Coleman recently launched a family sleepwear line. Through the WYNTRY Collection, Black families can bring the experience home with them in matching pajamas with Black and brown holiday characters, including Santa.

Douglas added,  “We pinch ourselves every day thinking about how far this company has come.”

When all is said and done, the experience is as enriching for Douglas as it is for the families. He tears up recalling the countless memories he’s made over the years, including the year a nonverbal child did everything in their power to communicate their joy at meeting him. He chuckles, thinking of how frustrated mothers will resort to bringing their misbehaving children to meet with him for a “come-to-Santa” moment. He even thinks back to meeting Santa as a child himself, pondering how different the experience would have been if it had been a Black Santa.

“Representation matters,” Douglas said. “Whenever you have an opportunity to allow kids to see themselves reflected in society, definitely be a part of that.”

Butler-Coleman added, “My lesson has and continues to be to create the things you wish existed. I have a very deep understanding of what Black families need in our society. And through the magic of the holiday season, it is my goal to provide the positive Black representation that our children need as they develop and start to make sense of the world around them.”

Oh, and for any young readers wondering why Santa was referred to as “Douglas” in this story, he has a message directly for you:

“Santa loves you! Believe that you can do and be anything that you want to be because that’s the kind of world we live in.”

Santa also added a very hearty “Ho, ho, ho — Merry Christmas!” to all.

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