Santa Claus is coming to town, and across the country, hundreds of thousands of kids will line up for their chance to sit on the big man’s lap. But roughly three percent of all professional Santas in the United States are African American. That’s disconcerting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that research shows that positive representation of role models — one kids can look at and relate to — can go a long way in helping children have a better self-image. Representation, however, is improving with more and more of an effort is being put forth to increase the amount of Santas of color. Considering conversations about Santa’s race still crop up — Megyn Kelly famously ranted on live television about how Santa Claus was clearly white, despite the fact that he is a fictional character invented by people to keep kids behaving throughout the year — it’s important.
That’s why we called up Santa Ken, a 77-year-old (377 years old if you ask him) African-American Santa who spreads cheer in the Delaware area. For this jolly fellow, who is a member of the National Santa group, it’s the most wonderful time of year. The smiling faces, the happy kids, and the chance to spread legitimate joy — and representation — keep him coming back to his Santa suit time and time again. Here, Santa Ken talks to Fatherly about how he took on the suit, providing a positive role model for kids, and how to respond to hate.
So, how long have you been Santa Ken?
I used to work in broadcast radio. About five years ago, just before November, most of the broadcasters were growing beards for prostate cancer month. That’s how I started growing my natural beard. The closer it got to Thanksgiving, my family, said ‘you cannot cut that off. You’re going to be Santa Claus.’ I have been Santa Claus ever since.
Did you just start with local gigs? How did you get involved in the big time?
The first few times, I did it for my family. That same year I was the Santa for the Christmas tree lighting in Westbury on Long Island. I rode in the fire truck. I was commissioner of the fire department. Then, one of the local churches said, ‘We need a Santa Claus for our tree lighting.’ I ended up going over, in the fire truck, to this other church. I did their Christmas tree lighting. Two weeks later, I was in a community center with about 80 kids and their Santa Claus. They had a Christmas party with the Nassau County Police Department. They were doing the thing for needy kids.
The following year, I did the same events, and in between those years, I went to the National Santa School. It’s called the International University of Santa Claus. I got my first diploma in Santa there. They have an agency called the National Santas and I started getting bookings through them.
We [santas] are all over the world; the color we come in is a chameleon. We come in love.
So it snowballed into a bigger thing from a small thing.
Good choice of words: ‘snowballed.’
So how do people, grownups and kids alike, react to you in your Santa Suit?
When I went to the Santa school, the first one, my wife and I were in a hotel. There was this family of about five. They had two little boys and one little girl. I’m talking toddlers. The one little boy pointed his finger at me. There were other Santas around; this is the Santa school. We were in the lobby of the hotel. He said, ‘That’s Santa.’ Pointing at me. I went over to him and he could not get over it. That was a white family. The mother, the grandmother, all of them — they were so happy.
Santa Tim, who is the head of the Santa schools, he says that I am what they consider a diverse, ‘Hollywood-type’ Santa. I said I don’t know what that means, but I’m glad that he says it. I’m glad that people that see me in a market or anything, it makes them all smile and feel happy, even if it’s just for a few minutes, no matter what time of the year. I’m well-blessed.
What’s important to you about getting out the holiday cheer?
This is the way Santa Tim and I put it: I am not the Coca-Cola Santa Claus. The guy who wrote The Night Before Christmas and Coca-Cola are the ones who come up with the figure of Santa as a blue-eyed, white, heavyset, almost obese guy. I have to wear a belly. Santa Tim told me to stay the way I am, because the National Heart Association is trying to impress upon children not to be obese and to eat healthy. Santa Tim told me, that’s what you do. And when people look at you, they’re just looking at your face, your beard. He says that it’s not the red suit, it’s what’s in the heart. It’s the love you give to everyone and the smiles you put on people’s faces: children, grown-ups, senior citizens. Everybody.
If you’re a Santa, you never respond negatively to any of that. You just go forward.
What was one of your favorite moments when you gave out holiday cheer?
I was at the Museum of the City of New York about three or four years ago. I had about 100, 150 kids in two different waves. Throughout that whole sitting, it was so diverse, it was beautiful. There was one little girl. She said to her friends: ‘That’s not Santa. That’s not Santa.’ And she caught my eye. I have great ears, I can hear around the corner. She was telling the other two: ‘He’s not white, so he can’t be Santa.’ Meanwhile, guess who comes up, gets on my lap? She does! She starts to tell me what she wants for Christmas. She’s looking right in my eye and I told her, ‘Well, I’m really happy that you finally figured out that I’m Santa Claus.’ The biggest smile came over her face. I told her, Santa is in your heart, right there.
Do people ever give you negativity because of what you look like?
Recently, in a restaurant, my wife and I were having breakfast. There was this one lady who said something a la Megyn Kelly about Santa having to be white. This lady did one of those. As she walked by me, I just looked at her and went ‘Ho, ho, ho. Now you have the merriest Christmas.’ The lady almost tripped over herself; she turned and said thank you very much. These are the type of things that Santa just handles like a piece of cake. If you’re a Santa, you never respond negatively to any of that. You just go forward.
That seems like a really mature way to go about it.
Here’s what I’ll say: Santa is all over the world. He comes from a guy named St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas was from Asia [Minor,] where they were of darker skin. Some others call me Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Papa Noel, Grandfather Frost. We are all over the world; the color we come in is a chameleon. We come in love.
What is your favorite part of being Santa?
The happy faces. The smiling faces. To walk into a room, or a store, full of kids, where the kids who are waiting are eating, talking, playing. And all of the sudden, as soon as I walk in, Santa is the star. And the room just lights up. The attention is totally on Santa, no matter what they look like. It’s Santa Claus! It doesn’t bother me, but I’ve had many adults ask to sit on my lap and if they can ask me what they want for Christmas. I say yes, as long as it’s not a Porsche. Because I can’t get the Porsche in my bag. But those kids are the best part. The faces that light up, the happy people in the room, and the adults, who can forget their troubles for a minute or two. It’s just a beautiful thing.