“I’m looking for the beard, but I’m also foremost looking for the spirit,” said Stafford Braxton, founder of Santas Just Like Me, an organization that recruits and hires Black Santas for holiday events and photo-ops.
Braxton, 61, of Huntersville, North Carolina, just north of Charlotte, launched his Santas Just Like Me business in 2013, and it’s currently in its 10th season. He says demand is high from people wishing to see Black men sporting authentic white beards. Some are long and wavy, while others are short and crisp.
One particular inflatable that Braxton has brought on an excited reaction, he recounts, from a Black woman happy to see a Black Santa Claus at a North Carolina mall. “I have this big 8-foot inflatable Santa on the set,” he said, “and she was like, ‘We’re going to have a Black Santa here, in Gastonia?’ I said, ‘yes, ma’am.’ She was happy, man.”
Shopping malls and holiday gatherings are common places to find a plump, bearded man sporting the eye-catching Santa suit. Braxton says so far this season, his six Santas are fully booked with about 60 events.
“We’re doing Neiman Marcus this weekend in Northern Virginia. We were the first Black Santas to do it last year, and they’ve asked us to come back this year because the response was so overwhelming,” Braxton said.
“The reservations got full so quick. They said something’s wrong with your reservation portal. They can’t make any more. They couldn’t make any more because there weren’t any more, so we extended two more times until we did seven hours on a Sunday,” he added.
The business of portraying Santa can be lucrative, with the average mall Santa racking up $22 an hour, according to ZipRecruiter, during a typical 12-hour shift to hoist excited children on his lap.
Mitch Allen, founder of Hire Santa, told CBS News that 2022 already has surpassed pre-pandemic levels for demands for Santa Clauses, and requests for more diverse Santa Clauses are up 130 percent.
“[There’s] a huge demand for Black Santas,” Allen said. He elaborated by saying his company, Hire Santa, “has experienced incredible demand for diverse Santa Claus entertainers. Five years ago, we rarely got a request for a Black Santa; in 2022, we are seeing many requests. We simply don’t have enough Black Santas to meet the demand,” Allen added.
Braxton caught wind of the growing demand more than a decade ago while working as a photographer in a North Carolina mall, taking photos of children with a white Santa Claus. He found it interesting more Black families were specifically asking when Black Santas would be available for photos.
“People would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, are you guys going to have a Black Santa?’ I would look at them reluctantly and say, ‘You know they’re not going to let y’all have a Black Santa up in here’ in that vernacular,” Braxton said.
Braxton says he approached mall management after an increasing number of queries about bringing in a Black Santa. The request was rebuffed, so he took notice of the demand and thought to create his own business to answer the need for Black Santas.
“The flame began to burn in my heart to provide a Black Santa to provide that opportunity in the area that I was in,” Braxton said.
In 2013, he launched Santas Just Like Me business, and from there, he kept a watchful eye out for Black men fitting the bill of Santa Claus, a little round, sporting white beards and possessing an infectious jolly spirit.
“My coworker tapped me on my shoulder and said, ‘Hey Stafford, doesn’t that guy look like the Black Santa?’ He was a great big guy with a beautiful white beard, so I had my business card with me. I ran off the set and said, ‘Here’s my card. I’m looking for Santas if you’re interested in doing something like that,'” Braxton said.
It took Braxton several months to attract his ideal Santa, one that, most of all, had a jolly spirit.
“If you don’t have a love of Christmas and a love for children, as bad as I need Santas, I won’t hire you because you will not convey the right spirit to the children who are looking up to you and coming to see you and the parents who want that representation. They don’t want just any representation. It’s not any good to just put a Black person in a position just because they’re Black; they need to be qualified,” Braxton said.
The Santa candidates he brings into his organization undergo training before making a grand entrance onto the photography set. Braxton hosts a Santa school, where the group of Santas learns the history of Santa Claus for inquisitive children sitting on his lap.
“My assumption is he was a man of color, and he was an admirer of Turkey. He was a man of color, and I teach that, so if anybody should be Santa, we should be,” Braxton said.
Although the concept of Black men portraying Santa Claus has been around for decades, the novelty of Black Santas can still be a rare sight. It was just in 2016 that America’s largest mall, the Mall of America in Minnesota, hosted its first Black Santa in its 30-year history, portrayed by Larry Jefferson. However, the historic moment was not a welcome sight for everyone, as some white people flooded racist comments on message boards following Jefferson’s debut as Santa, the BBC reported.
Braxton’s school also shows the would-be Santas how to perform as Santa and profit from it.
“We teach about decorum, how to interact with the children, the parents, poses you need to know, how to keep your beard looking good,” Braxton said. “We teach them the business of being Santa, about taxes, write-offs, how to set yourself up to be a sole proprietor or LLC,” he added.
During one of the Santa school lessons, Braxton’s students received advice from the history-making Black Santa himself, Jefferson.
“They had to shut down the Facebook page because there was so much of a negative response to what they were doing,” Braxton said.
Warren Santa Keyes, 68, of Raleigh, North Carolina, is one of Braxton’s Black Santas and has been a member of the Santas Just Like Me roster since the beginning.
“My favorite part about portraying Santa is speaking with a child who believes in Santa and is receptive to the idea that they can accomplish goals that they set themselves to do. The look of wonder in their eyes is priceless and warms my heart immeasurably,” Keyes said.
Keyes says he takes his duty to fulfill Black Santa seriously.
“Most of the children I see take Santa quite seriously, and I don’t want to ‘cheapen’ the experience by being flippant or dismissive of the child to whom I’m relating at the moment. I give the child my complete attention; I look into their eyes and listen attentively to what they’re saying to me. I do my best to find something about which I can give them a compliment,” he said.
While Keyes admits understanding what the child is saying to him while in his lap or dealing with parents in a hurry for the photograph can be challenging at times, nothing beats the joy he gets to experience by bringing smiles to the faces of children and families. He says it is especially important for more children to see Black Santas because it helps reframe how Black men, in particular, are portrayed in a positive light in the minds of young children at an early age.
“Santa Claus represents, to a lot of children, a person who is held in high esteem, is universally recognized, and who is undoubtedly an authority figure. Children of all ethnicities need to see that men of color can live up to those standards,” Keyes said. “It’s my opinion that much of our society tends not to be of the mind that men of color can fit that bill, and that needs to change. It’s an honor to me to do what I can do to remedy that notion.”
Braxton typically receives bookings at malls, community centers, and private events. He admits his excitement rises when he is in predominantly Black spaces such as the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham, North Carolina, a popular Black cultural center in town that has a history of hosting Black Santas for the holidays.
“A friend told me, ‘You need to go to the Hayti Center in Durham, the Black Cultural Center; they’d love to have you if they don’t already have a Santa.’ I took my portfolio of what I could do, I went down there and introduced myself, and all I had to do was say Black Santa, and that was it, you would have thought I gave them a million dollars,” Braxton said.
In nearby Raleigh, North Carolina, Alicia James does not miss an opportunity to take her child to one of Braxton’s Black Santa events. “Stafford is a professional photographer and businessman who creates a positive experience for children, parents and the community,” James said.
James has brought her 8-year-old son to see Black Santa Claus eight years in a row, and she says Black Santa is the only Santa her son has ever known. James has a multiracial family and says diversity and representation are important parts of the experience.
“Black Santa is the epitome of Black joy, and the significance of representation cannot be overstated. Kids see someone like themselves centered in the Christmas story, and that has an enormous impact on their outlook and understanding of the world,” James said. “Black Santa is a celebration of diversity. He provides an alternative option for anyone who wants a different type of Santa and picture-taking experience aside from traditional ones.”
Despite the overwhelming positive feedback Braxton received over the years, he also has received negative feedback from some white people for his efforts to diversify the holidays with more Black Santa Clauses. He recalls a voice message he received from a white woman after learning of his business.
“‘White children should not be going to see Black Santa,'” he recalls of the racist voice message. “‘And they went so far as to still call us slaves.'”
Braxton says he drowns out the sporadic negativity in favor of the positive and the growth his business has seen from people coast to coast, including Black families, mixed-race families and even some white families wishing to expose their children to different Santa Claus portrayals.
“Now we’ve got clients in Boston, Canada and I’ve had one family on there from Zimbabwe, so we’ve hit another continent,” Braxton said.
Braxton says his Santas usually earn between $25 to $250 an hour, depending on the event. He says a Black Santa Claus experience tends to be a bit different than a standard white Santa experience, as many of his Black Santas will customize their Santa outfit with a different pair of boots or offer different trimmings along with their traditional red Santa suit. He says some of the Santas go a step further by making a grand entrance into the photography space dancing to Christmas carols sung by Black artists.
“You know we’re going to bring flavor to what we do. We’re not going to be bland. We’re going to inject who we are into the experience and the families love it,” Braxton said.