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Black Santas are helping to change holiday icons and add more representation

Santa at the West Dallas Christmas Block Party
Michelle Aslam
/
NPR
Santa at the West Dallas Christmas Block Party

At the West Dallas Christmas Block Party, volunteers in elf hats are manning stations for children around the room. They are giving out colorful Christmas stockings, painting faces, and making balloon animals.

Five year-old Carmelo Jackson is in line to get his face painted as the Grinch. He says out of all the activities, he's the most excited to see Santa, so he can ask him for a power ranger for Christmas. Jackson says it'll be easy to spot him.

"He got long hair, he got boot shoes, and he got a belt on. And he got a suit on. Uh, he got a mustache and he gives everybody presents," he says.

Builders of Hope, an organization that builds affordable housing in Dallas, has helped host this Christmas event for almost 15 years. According to James Armstrong, the president, many families in the community struggle during the holidays. In West Dallas, about 30 percent of families live below the poverty line.

"To be honest, families in this neighborhood, Christmas is not as easy for them. They have to work multiple jobs to give their kid just a normal Christmas experience," he said.

Families who come to the Christmas party today will receive a meal, and get a box full of food to take home with them. And for the kids, all sorts of fun holiday activities. Armstrong says for the first time this year, that includes a Black Santa Claus.

"To be honest with you, you know, the kids here can't relate to a white Santa because they see in their community Black and brown people," he said. "And so it was very important for cultural representation, that kids see that someone as magical and amazing as Santa can be Black like them."

Diverse depictions of Santa have become more accessible to families over the last few years. In 2016, the Mall of America had its first Black Santa. Now, with a growing push for diversity and representation, diverse Santas are much easier to come by.

"You can find Black Santa at Hobby Lobby, T.J. Maxx, Burlington, Ross, Walmart, Target, like all those stores," says Nastashia Stokes of DFW Black Santa. "Old Navy even has Black Santa Claus pajamas."

She says slowly, times are changing. But it wasn't always like this.

"When I was younger, that wasn't a thing. It was white Santa Claus, and you had to paint him Black," Stokes said.

When she moved to Texas from New Orleans, it was hard to find Black Santa for her kids. So, she and her partner, Justin Peach, started DFW Black Santa last year. Peach has the red suit on today to give local kids the chance to see a more familiar Santa.

"It's highly wanted, highly needed. Yeah, it's a big demand," he says.

The pair say the demand from the Dallas-Fort Worth area alone is more than they can handle. Since they started last year, they have added another Santa to the team. Still, they say it's hard to keep up with all the requests they get on social media. Today, they've already done four events.

Peach says he doesn't do this work for the money. For him, it's about giving back to the community he grew up in. Earlier today, when a little girl sat down to take her picture next to him, he was reminded of why he loves what he does so much.

"When we were done with our pictures, she was like, 'I'm so happy to see a Santa that looks like me.' And that just kinda touched me and really made me feel good about what I'm doing," he said.

Stokes says that kind of reaction from families isn't rare. She hears a lot of stories from parents desperate to give their children a more meaningful Christmas experience.

"I just think that it is important that they see someone who looks like them, if they're going to see a big man giving presents, it might as well look like daddy or uncle or grandpa, you know?" she said.

Stokes says at the end of the day, feeling included is part of the magic of Christmas. And Santa Claus can be whatever you imagine him to be.

"It's magic. It's whatever it is, it's magic," she said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michelle Aslam
Michelle Aslam is a 2021-2022 Kroc Fellow and recent graduate from North Texas. While in college, she won state-wide student journalism awards for her investigation into campus sexual assault proceedings and her reporting on racial justice demonstrations. Aslam previously interned for the North Texas NPR Member station KERA, and also had the opportunity to write for the Dallas Morning News and the Texas Observer.