Say the words "Santa Claus" and a general image usually comes to mind: a jolly, rosy-cheeked, overweight white guy with a white beard in a red velvet suit. And why would it be any different? After all, it's the image that many have been raised on since they were old enough to crawl.
But what if the image of the modern-day Santa Claus is a fallacy that's based on a charitable third-century-born monk, St. Nicholas, who was dark-skinned (sans any chimney soot) and had a bushy, woolly beard? This St. Nicholas, who has been referred to as a Moor from Africa by some accounts, reportedly lived between 270 and 343 A.D.
Atlanta resident Santa Dee (he declined to give his full name), who works as Santa Claus during the holiday season, believes St. Nicholas did indeed have a dark olive complexion. He often refers to a December 2002 Turkish Times article, "Santa Claus: How a Bearded Black Bishop Born in Turkey Became America's Favorite White Saint," that describes St. Nicholas as "very dark-skinned" as evidence of his belief.
The 47-year-old black Santa, who works for a nonprofit off-season, has built his 10-year-old business, the Real Black Santa, around the idea of a dark-skinned St. Nicholas and his altruistic acts.
The Root spent some time in Santa Dee's workshop at Underground Atlanta, where he employs two backup black Santas and his mother as Mrs. Claus, to discuss what led him to his seasonal job, how he learned about St. Nicholas and the reaction he gets from customers.
The Root: You started portraying Santa Claus 10 years ago. What inspired you to do this?
Santa Dee: Believe it or not, money was my initial motivator. I was taking an insurance license-renewal class, and the instructor worked as a Santa. It was May, and I noticed his phone was ringing off the hook with requests to work. This gentleman, who was white, told me he made $28,000 during the holidays as Santa Claus, and I was like, "Wow, that's a lot of money for two months." He also told me that black Santas were in demand.
My motivation changed after I did my very first show as Santa and saw how excited the children were. It was the best situation I've ever done in my life. I did another show at [Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport] where 700 children were bused in, and that experience just made me overwhelmed with joy. At that point it was no longer about money; it was about how I enjoyed doing this job.
Santa Dee and his helpers try in vain to get Morgan Cowart to smile for the camera.
TR: You incorporate the story of St. Nicholas as a Turkish monk of African descent into your work as Santa Claus. When did you first learn about him?
SD: During a fall festival, a woman walked by with her son and pointed to me, asking him if he wanted to take a photo with Santa Claus, and the young man said, "No, Santa Claus ain't black."
It made me very upset, to the point that I did a lot of research and even have a gentleman who sends me various images that show St. Nicholas as a darker-skinned man. In one photo he even looks like Frederick Douglass, with the hair and all. That's what it looked like to me.
I also read an article written in the Turkish Times that referred to St. Nicholas as a black man. I knew I had to share this. I'm not trying to rock the boat but trying to let people know that St. Nicholas was, according to the Turkish Times, a black man. And I want to teach kids about his good deeds and why he's important. For me it's motivating.
TR: But most of the images that come up on the Internet portray St. Nicholas as a white person.
SD: I believe that the people who have the power, the people who have the money, write history the way they want it. They're the ones who tell you who did or didn't do what, even if it wasn't so. And that's why when I heard the story of St. Nicholas being a dark-skinned Turkish monk, I was so apt to use it. I believe these stories and continue to use them as my springboard toward my portrayal as Santa Claus.
TR: How do people react when they see you, a black Santa Claus?
SD: I've noticed that babies and toddlers aren't hung up about skin color. That attitude seems to change as they get a bit older. I've had parents who would dress their kids up to see Santa Claus, only to leave when they see me in the chair.
I do have white parents who have been bringing their kids to me for years. One family in particular has been coming for over five years, and they find me wherever I am. To them it doesn't matter the color of the skin; they just want to make sure that they have the same picture of the same Santa each year.
For some I'm sure it's a novelty. Every now and then, there are folks who come up and say, "Well, Santa is not black, but I'll take the picture anyway." I then tell them the real story of St. Nicholas in an abridged version. It seems that some people have a negative mindset about black Santa. Even when you Google "black Santa," most of the time you get a black exploitation movie or something pertaining to negative stereotypes. I want to change the negative image that people have of black Santas.
Aisha I. Jefferson is a contributor to The Root.