It’s been two years since Chris Kennedy received a racist letter demanding that he remove the seven-foot inflatable Black Santa on his front lawn in North Little Rock.
Not only did Kennedy keep his Black Santa in place, but he also added a second one. His neighbors stood in solidarity, adorning their own front lawns with Black Santas.
Although Kennedy was deeply touched by the show of community support, he decided there was more he wanted to do to increase representation — and put the letter-writer, whose identity was never uncovered, in their place. He became a trained Santa Claus, saying he’d never seen another professional Black Santa in Arkansas.
“I couldn’t let hatred win,” said Kennedy, 35, who is a data verification analyst. “You don’t like me having a Black Santa in my front yard? I will go and be the Santa Claus for the entire city.”
Initially, Kennedy started dressing up as Santa for his then-4-year-old daughter, Emily. He rented his first Santa suit two years ago, after the hateful letter, and they posed for pictures.
“I want my daughter to see herself represented,” said Kennedy, explaining that was the reason he put an inflatable Black Santa on his lawn in the first place.
Family and friends caught wind of Kennedy’s Santa suit, and several people asked if he could take photos with their own children — who also wished to see themselves reflected in Santa.
He and his wife, Iddy Kennedy, saw a need for a professional Black Santa in their community. They wanted to fill the void.
“People definitely want this, so maybe we should start trying to make this happen next year,” Kennedy said to his wife.
When the opportunity arose to partake in “Santa Camp” — an annual program run by the New England Santa Society — Kennedy was on board. Organizers contacted him after hearing his story and explained that they were seeking Santas of various backgrounds to join their group.
It was clear that “they really wanted to push things forward and be more inclusive,” said Kennedy, who had never heard of Santa Camp before.
Plus, “they were getting tons of requests for Black Santas,” he added, explaining that businesses and individuals can seek professional Santas on the organization’s website.
Kennedy said he wanted to hone his skills — and become the best Black Santa possible. Santa Camp — which is held on a campsite in the New Hampshire woodlands — offered an opportunity to do that.
The camp is run annually in late August, and is a two-day crash course covering all things Santa Claus. It teaches prospective professional Santas — as well as Mrs. Clauses and elves — how to play the part. The program is the subject of a new documentary film, “Santa Camp,” which was released on HBO Max earlier this month.
The film follows Kennedy, as well as two other Santas — a transgender man and a disabled man — as they learn the tricks of the trade alongside a group of about 100 other Santas, many of whom have worked in the industry for several decades.
“I’m definitely happy to see more diversity in all aspects,” said Kennedy.
Although he was the only Black Santa at camp, Kennedy said, he felt welcomed by the other Santas. As a group, they had several difficult conversations about the need for more representation among professional Santas, he said.
“I could definitely tell that there were people that had to adjust and make sure they were asking the proper questions,” Kennedy said.
In a particularly poignant scene in the film, Kennedy reads the racist note aloud to his fellow Santas, all of whom appear emotional as he recites the hateful words.
“I brought this, to do this here,” he said, as he tossed the original letter into a campfire. The Santas collectively clapped and cheered.
The moment was also meaningful to the filmmakers who worked on the documentary.
“Seeing him let go of this incredibly hurtful thing was very moving for me,” said Nick Sweeney, the film director. “It’s incredibly powerful to see Santa represented in ways that reflect America as a whole.”
“It was really brave of him to stand up in front of all these strangers and feel comfortable reading something that he didn’t really want to read,” echoed Stacey Reiss, a producer. “I love the idea that he turned something so negative in his life into something so beautiful and positive.”
“I’m going to be the Santa for kids that look like me in my area and coming here has given me the tools to be able to do that to the best of my abilities,” Kennedy told the Santas after burning the letter.
During his stay at Santa Camp, Kennedy said he learned about character development, and how to make his portrayal of Santa Claus unique to him — and reflective of his roots.
“I’m from the south side of the North Pole, where we get a little bit more sun,” Kennedy said. “I eat brownies instead of chocolate chip cookies.”
“I’m injecting who I am into Santa Claus, and injecting a lot of my culture into Santa Claus, to make my people feel seen, heard and accepted,” he said.
Since starting out his professional Santa Claus career last season, Kennedy has done over 250 events, including virtual visits, home and office appearances, holiday gatherings, charity functions and business parties throughout Arkansas. Being a Black Santa, he said, has brought him immense joy.
“One of the coolest things about the story blowing up is that there were people that were traveling for hundreds of miles,” said Kennedy, explaining that several families drove long distances to various festivals to introduce their children to him. “I don’t think there’s any better feeling in the world.”
Above all, though, “I love being able to see the smile on all children’s faces” he said.
This year, Kennedy will be the primary Santa Claus for the Southwest Little Rock Christmas parade, as well as the City of Maumelle Christmas parade. He was also Santa for the North Little Rock Northern Lights Festival — which was held on Nov. 19.
“It’s a huge deal for me that these towns are doing that,” said Kennedy.
Sweeney, the film director, said the documentary explores these questions: “How can one of the most beloved traditions find its place in a changing America? Can it adapt?”
“I think from what we see in the film,” he said, “the answer is yes.”