This article has been updated since it originally appeared on December 8, 2021.
At the Mall of America, shoppers saw something they’d never seen before in America’s largest mall: an Asian Santa Claus.
The “Santa Experience,” an annual event at the mall in Bloomington, Minn., features the most diverse group of Santas, including Santa Pat, a Santa who is black. Santa Allan Siu, the mall’s first Asian-American Santa, has joined the lineup for the 2022 season. The hiring is significant, said Charisse L’Pree Corsbie-Massay, an associate professor of communications at the Newhouse School at the University. of Syracuse, to Yahoo Life.
“A lot of the conversations we have about ‘diverse Santa’ involve Black Santa, but this is a general rhetorical problem with issues of ‘diversity’ and ‘race’ – that we interpret that as representing a specific marginalized group, Corsbie-Massay explains. “Asian Santa ensures that we break out of a limited discussion into a better understanding of racial representation worldwide. People of Asian descent make up more than 60% of the world’s population, so it’s good to have a Santa representing global citizenship. It is important for Asian children as well as children who are not Asian.”
The mall’s group is further supplemented by bilingual Santa Clauses: one who speaks Spanish and another who speaks Cantonese.
When it comes to Jolly Old Saint Nick – a true hero in the eyes of children – many would be surprised to learn that the early depictions of Santa Claus were not white. That all changed with an 1863 release of Harper’s Weekly where a Civil War cartoonist characterized Santa Claus in print as the round-faced white version seen in modern images today.
But in recent years, efforts to find more diverse Santas have increased. Retailer Old Navy made headlines last year by releasing a line of Christmas pajamas featuring St. Nick in a variety of skin tones, while 2021 also marked the first time the Christmas festivities at Disneyland and Walt Disney World featured a black Santa Claus. Those developments have been coming for a long time, many say.
Ashley Capel is a mom and creator of the Black Santa Exists Instagram account, which is dedicated to showcasing Capel’s store-bought Black Santa finds — from dolls to decor — and supporting small online businesses that create homemade designs.
“I’m just a mom of three little black boys who wanted to make sure we had black Santas in the house,” Capel tells Yahoo Life, “and that our boys could see a Santa who looks like them.”
Coby Owens, a community activist from Wilmington, Del., also took matters into his own hands. Owens portrays Santa Claus for his community’s annual “Santa is Coming to Town” event. For Owens, it all goes back to his grandmother, who collected Black Santas.
“Unfortunately growing up, that was one of the few places I saw Black Santas,” says Owens. “When I went to pageants [and] shops or television, I didn’t see a Santa who looked like me. So sometimes it felt like Santa wasn’t meant for me or anyone who looks like me.”
Owens believes the event is a great example for local kids and particularly enjoys their reactions to seeing a Santa they identify with.
“Representation is extremely important,” he explains. “Our community has been through so much, from a pandemic to gun violence, it’s amazing to spend an evening forgetting everything and celebrating giving back and having joy. The children’s reaction makes it 100% worth it.”
The long-awaited transition to inclusiveness is not limited to just Santa Claus. Natasha Huang Smith is a mom and digital marketing consultant whose son, Jackson, loves the popular Elf on the Shelf toy in a variety of skin tones.
“Growing up in a traditional Chinese family, my parents didn’t care much about Christmas,” says Huang Smith, “so every time we took Santa photos or meet-and-greets, it was a huge treat.”
But she admits that before celebrating the holidays with her son, she hadn’t given much thought to Santa’s typically white appearance.
“To be perfectly honest, I never knew Santa looked any different than an old white dude with a belly and a beard,” she says.
Huang Smith’s family currently resides in Florida, where Jackson has had the opportunity to visit both a white Santa and a tropical Santa wearing a Hawaiian shirt and lei.
“I’d love to take Jackson to see a Chinese Santa Claus,” she says. “I think the world is changing and I expect there will be more diverse Santas in the coming years, which makes me very happy to hear.”
While Asian Santas prove to be a much rarer find, there are some events that feature them around the country. California families craving nostalgia during the holidays are briefly bringing the popular 1980s Shogun Santa—a Japanese Santa Claus—back to Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, while an Asian Santa appears for just one day in Seattle, Washington, at the Wing Luke Asia Museum.
Icon Pancho Claus from Houston, Texas is somewhat of a local celebrity who has been bringing happiness and joy to at-risk families for four decades. A hero of the area’s large Latin population, the “Tex-Mex Santa,” also known as Richard Reyes, delivers more than 10,000 gifts to children and families in need.
Proving that not all heroes wear capes, Reyes does so in a zoot suit as he parades through the streets in a festive extravaganza. Over the past decade, those efforts have grown into a non-profit that runs year-round youth programs, including arts enrichment classes.
Implementing inclusion is not without logistical complications. According to a “Santa Census” conducted by The Tampa Bay Times in 2017, less than 5% of professional Santas working at mall meet and greets and other celebrations are Hispanic, Asian or Black.
Tanya Ackera judge and co-host of the nationally syndicated television show Hot couchnever forget her memories as a young child in search of Black Santa.
“My parents took me across town to find a Black Santa,” Acker says. “I don’t know how they found the ones they found — there were no Black Santa Facebook groups and, in fact, there was no Facebook.”
Acker says she knows firsthand that it’s important for kids to see someone who looks like them.
“My parents have always worked very hard to combat the negative images that the greater society sometimes promoted about African Americans,” says the host of the Tanya Acker show podcast. “If young people of color only see heroes who look like others, when all the bad guys and villains and dangerous people look like them, it can really hurt their psyches and self-esteem.”
“I’m glad the idea of the non-white hero isn’t so rare anymore,” Acker added.
Kevin Nolan, also known as Cocoa Santa, is a popular attraction in St. Louis, Mo.
“As a kid, I don’t remember seeing a colored Santa Claus,” says Nolan. “My mother kept the spirit of Christmas alive in our home, and as an adult and father, I wanted to continue and grow this trend. I love seeing the smiles on children’s and adults’ faces.”
Nolan says he’s also currently working on a “Santa stories” YouTube series to bring the representation of Black Santa beyond his territory and onto the Internet.
For some, Christmas may just be another commercialized holiday full of frivolity and fantasy. For Nolan, it’s much more.
“Representation is important,” he says. “Even to Santa Claus.”
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