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Families wanted a Black Santa, so one man created a company to provide them

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Our next story starts back in 2011, when a man named Stafford Braxton was working as a photographer for Santa at his local mall in North Carolina.

STAFFORD BRAXTON: And we kept getting requests from families of color to have a Santa that looked like them.

SUMMERS: So Braxton, who's Black, approached the mall to ask them about getting the Black Santa.

BRAXTON: And I felt like they patted me on the head, and they said, that's a good idea.

SUMMERS: But, he says, they didn't do anything.

BRAXTON: And so when they didn't move fast enough for me, I decided then if it's going to happen, I'm going to have to make it happen.

SUMMERS: And that's exactly what he did. Braxton set out to find Black Santas himself, and he started a company called Santas Just Like Me to bring those Black and brown Santas to holiday celebrations. But it turns out finding a Santa is about more than just the looks.

BRAXTON: First of all, I look for a natural beard, natural white or peppered beard.

SUMMERS: (Laughter).

BRAXTON: And then I look for the personality because you can have the best looking beard in the world, but if you do not have the personality and the love, the genuine love in your heart, then you're not going to be a genuine enough Santa for me because we want people that exude the spirit of St. Nicholas. And so that's what I look for.

SUMMERS: So I'm sitting here, and I'm racking my brain. And, you know, when I was growing up, the depictions of Santa that I saw either at the local mall or in artwork or in film, they did not look like you and me. They were these, you know, jolly white men with fluffy white beards. Was that the case for you too?

BRAXTON: You know, growing up, I do not remember much about seeing Santa at all, to be honest.

SUMMERS: Really?

BRAXTON: So I don't know if that's - and my family never talked about it. You know, they didn't talk pro, or they didn't talk con. They just - we never mentioned it. I just knew that I had to be in the bed by a certain time on Christmas Eve or there were not going to be any gifts under the tree. But, of course, when I'm watching television, you see all the imagery. And you would think that only white people celebrated Christmas.

SUMMERS: It strikes me as interesting that you don't have very vibrant memories of Santa given the fact that now your work is bringing Santa to other kids across the country.

BRAXTON: Yeah, I do find that quite interesting. But it was just - representation was very important to me and as to the families that were approaching me about doing this. And so I felt like I had to take up the mantle and provide that opportunity for the people who were in my sphere of reference. You know, I couldn't do everybody, but I could, you know, touch those that were in my community. And that's what I endeavor to do. And now, you know, we're getting phone calls from California, Boston, Texas, Oregon, Canada. I had one of the Zoom calls tell me that they actually had people on there from Zimbabwe, which I find just enthralling that, you know, this little guy from Yorktown, Va., is doing something that is touching so many lives in such an important way. It's humbling. It's very humbling.

SUMMERS: So what has the reaction been like when families meet Santa? Is there maybe one story of a child or a parent or a family that you could share with us?

BRAXTON: The one that pops in my mind immediately is a woman. Her name was Hortense (ph). And Hortense was 72 years old. And her daughter and granddaughter had come to an event in Charlotte, N.C., and posted their pictures online. And she saw them, and she made a beeline to where we were. And when she came around the corner, there were tears in her eyes. And even as I think about it now, I begin to tear up because all her life, she said, I have never seen a real Black Santa. And when she came there and shared that with me, you know, we're crying. Santa is trying to keep from crying. So that's the one that really sticks out.

And then we have parents all the time that come up to us and just say, thank you for doing this. We had a letter - a email come to us a couple of weeks ago and about event we did this season. And her child was nonverbal on the autism spectrum. And she was very concerned about how it was going to go and - because he's, you know, he has a hard time sitting still. And so she said when he came to Santa and Santa reached out his hands to him, she said all was right with his world. She said he sat there. He smiled. They got great images, and all he could say - he couldn't say much - but he said, Santa, all weekend. And that just reminded me why I do this.

SUMMERS: You know, that really speaks to something I think about a lot and that love to ask you. What do you think is the magic of Santa Claus, specifically in the moment that we're in right now, where many of us are coming out of a rough few years with the ongoing pandemic in an increasingly divided country? What do you see in Santa that can help people right now?

BRAXTON: The thing that I see in Santa is that he celebrates the goodness in life, which is what we really need to do because, like you said, with all that we've come through - you know, I just see it when people are coming to the events. I mean, they're coming in throngs like I've never seen it before to the point where I'm thinking, Lord, are we going to be able to make it through this season? Because the demand is just so great to have something positive that you could hold on to. I think people need that more than ever. We need to celebrate. We need to celebrate each other. And that's what Santa does even though, you know, they say he has a naughty list. You know, Santa tries to find a way to convert those naughty to the good list because he doesn't want to leave any child out.

SUMMERS: We've talked a lot about the positive reaction and response that you've received from Santas Just Like Me. But I do have to ask you, has there been any pushback to the idea of seeing Black or brown Santas?

BRAXTON: Of course. Matter of fact, we had an event - when you're approaching the Santa set where I'm located, you cannot tell what the Santa looks like that is in the chair until you walk around. And so the little girl was anxious, ready to go see Santa. And when she saw Santa, she was ready to get in line to go see him. But the mother said, that's not the kind we like.

SUMMERS: Mmm.

BRAXTON: So you can see how racism is perpetuated from one generation to the next. I received multiple phone calls. I saved about 10 or 15 that have been very vile, and I wouldn't even repeat the stuff that have been said to me or to Santa. But like I said, I've saved some messages just because people don't believe it.

SUMMERS: Before I let you go, I just have to ask you, what has it meant to you personally to bring Black and brown Santas to families across the country and even to expose people around the world who have reached out to you about this?

BRAXTON: You know, sometimes when I think about all that has happened in the last 10 years, my brain just goes tilt because realizing just how great the demand is and how few Santas there are. And so I keep searching. I keep looking. I approach men in various places to help carry this burden because, like I said, the demand is so great. The need is there. People want it because representation is so important for their children.

SUMMERS: That is Stafford Braxton. His business, Santas Just Like Me, brings Black and brown Santas to holiday celebrations. Stafford, thank you so much for talking with us today.

BRAXTON: Oh, you are more than welcome. Merry Christmas. Ho-ho-ho-ho-ho (laughter). I couldn't leave without ho-ho-ing (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.