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In Boston and beyond, black Santas remain elusive

Isaac Holbert enjoyed the company of Santa, portrayed by Eddie Brimage, who has greeted children as St. Nick at the Black Market in Dudley Square for three years.
Isaac Holbert enjoyed the company of Santa, portrayed by Eddie Brimage, who has greeted children as St. Nick at the Black Market in Dudley Square for three years. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Every year, the search for Santa Claus is the same.

Some stalk Google. Others rely on word of mouth, hoping a friend or a friend of a friend knows where to find one.

Then there are those like Nellie Moore, who, while raising her now-grown daughter in Hyde Park, resigned herself to the idea that the elusive one she sought simply couldn’t be found.

“We wouldn’t waste our time searching,” says Moore.

It’s not that there is ever any shortage of shopping mall Santas. It’s that they are almost always white.

And for many in the black community, both in Boston and elsewhere, finding a Santa their children can see themselves in can be a frustrating — and sometimes fruitless — endeavor.

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“It’s very easy to find the traditional white Santa,” says Vivian Walker of Cleveland, who once drove eight hours round trip so that her son could get his picture taken with a black Santa and who now runs a Black Santa Directory Facebook group.

But a black St. Nick? “It could feel almost impossible,” she says. “Pretty much one dead end after another.”

For parents, it goes far beyond just skin tone.

Seeing a Santa of color, they say, can have a significant and lasting impact on children, helping with everything from identity to self-esteem, while making the traditions of the holiday feel far more inclusive.

Sam Keary meets Santa Eddie Brimage at the Black Market.
Sam Keary meets Santa Eddie Brimage at the Black Market. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“To others, it might be, ‘Why do you have to have a black Santa?’ ” says Kai Grant, the founder of Black Market in Dudley Square, which for the past three years has hosted a black Santa for a weekend every December. “Well, why do we not have to have a black Santa?

“It’s a point of pride for us, and we want to make sure our kids have an understanding of their culture in a way that is personal.”

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Facilitating it, however, hasn’t always been easy.

Despite a healthy public demand for Santas of various ethnicities, those who book professional Santas for corporate parties and mall gigs describe a national Santa stable that is exceedingly short on diversity.

Of the 3,000 worldwide members of the Santa Claus Conservatory — an online Santa school offering webinars ranging from “Being a Mall Santa” to “Beard Whitening & Care” — a “tiny, tiny number” are Santas of color, says the organization’s founder, Ed Taylor.

“I get calls regularly from around the country asking about Santas, and I get requests for Santas of color with some frequency,” says Taylor. “And it’s very, very difficult to fulfill them.”

It’s been much of the same for Dan Greenleaf, who books Santas for events through his New Hampshire-based company, ImSanta.org.

Santa Eddie Brimage was holding court at the Black Market, greeting visitors, posing for photos, doing the occasional dance.
Santa Eddie Brimage was holding court at the Black Market, greeting visitors, posing for photos, doing the occasional dance.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Of the 50 or so Santas he worked with last year, he says, none were people of color. Nor are any of the 65 or so he’s working with this holiday season.

“It’s so disappointing,” says Taylor, who is based in Los Angeles. “Santa Claus is such a wonderful character to portray, and everybody in the community just loves what Santa Claus represents. And we just need more of them — and more diversity amongst them.”

There have been exceptions, of course.

In the Atlanta area, Dion “Santa D” Sinclair has carved out a significant following as a black Santa, fielding requests from as far as California. And in 2016, Larry Jefferson Gamble made history by becoming the first black Santa in Minnesota’s Mall of America.

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But efforts to promote Santas of color have been met, on occasion, with racially charged backlash.

Six years ago, Megyn Kelly, then of Fox News, famously declared — in response to a Slate article suggesting that the depiction of a white Santa Claus was outdated — “For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white.”

And while Gamble’s Mall of America appointment represented a significant moment, it also sparked calls by some to boycott the mall, while online comments on a story by the Star Tribune in Minneapolis were so vitriolic that the paper’s editors chose to disable them.

“I knew that it was going to become an issue, because of the timing of our country at that moment,” says Gamble, referring to the rise in hate speech that paralleled Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency.

Even now, the racial makeup of a fictional character remains oddly sensitive for some.

Greenleaf said he was recently speaking to a prospective client who asked, sheepishly, whether the Santa she was hiring for an office event would be white, unsure of how her boss would react to a black Santa.

And while such blunt questions are rare, he says, clients often have a very specific vision of what they expect a Santa to look like.

“I get a lot of requests from people wanting to see photos of the Santas they’re going to get,” says Greenleaf. “And for me, probably the least important part of the Santa is what he looks like. I try to match it up by personality.”

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Still, there have been some encouraging signs in recent years.

A few years back, a mother in Dallas named Jihan Woods — inspired by her annual frustration in locating a black Santa for her two young sons — created Find Black Santa, a smartphone app dedicated to helping families connect with black Santas in their communities. The Black Santa Directory Facebook page run by Walker provides a similar service, rounding up black Santa events from around the world.

Last weekend in Boston, meanwhile, a steady stream of families made their way into Dudley Square, where Santa Eddie Brimage was holding court at the Black Market, greeting visitors, posing for photos, doing the occasional dance.

Now in its third year, the market’s Black Santa event has become a two-day affair — drawing families from across the region and ensuring that, for one weekend at least, a black Santa would be available.

“It has nothing to do with anybody else’s Santa — nobody’s degrading any other Santa,” says Grant, the event’s organizer. “For us, this is literally a time . . . to continue to strengthen ourselves and to be able to see ourselves within the narrative of this Christmas holiday.”


Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.