When Antonio “Tony” Covay stepped into a $500 Santa suit, he wasn’t sure what to expect.

All he knew was this: He had never seen a black Santa in person.

“Have you?” he asks me. “All we see is white Santas. Why not have a black one? We all celebrate Christmas the same way, so why not have one?”

That “why not” led to Covay standing in that red suit on Constitution Avenue on a recent teeth-chatteringly cold afternoon, singing his hat off. That’s not a euphemism. His red-and-white hat hits the sidewalk as he moves to the melody of “Sweet Caroline.”

He doesn’t miss a beat. He continues to sway and sing, swapping out the name “Caroline” for a more appropriate one.

Sweet Mrs. Claus

Good times never seem so good

Sweet Mrs. Claus

I believe they never could

Sweet Mrs. Claus

Covay is a seasoned street performer who can be found throughout the year crooning outside the White House, Nationals Park or the National Museum of Natural History. But this season marks his first as ol’ Saint Nick — and, although it wasn’t his main intention when he put on that costume, he also walked into a wider conversation about representation.

From behind a pair of fake wire-rimmed glasses, he is getting a firsthand view of how people respond to a black Santa.

Tony Covay, 63, spent $500 on a Santa suit in 2019 for a simple reason, to show children in the District something he never saw growing up: a black Santa Claus. (The Washington Post)

When Covay bought the costume online — opting for “one of those expensive ones with satin on the inside” — his goal was simple. He purchased it earlier this month, the day after the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony, hoping to make some extra cash during a season that can see a day’s work wiped out by weather that makes people not want to pull their hands from their pockets. He also figured, worst case, if he didn’t make his investment back, he would at least give kids the chance to see what he never did as a child, a Santa that doesn’t look like most of the ones found in books or malls.

I discovered Covay by chance. I was looking through Craigslist, as I sometimes do to gauge what’s happening economically in the region, when I noticed a small cluster of postings for Santas for hire. Among the detailed listings from seasoned Santas, his post appeared out of place. It seemed like a quiet knock on the door by someone who wasn’t sure he had the right address.

One Santa advertised having a “real beard,” nearly 40 years of experience and the ability to “perform magic.”

Another Santa claimed to have more than 30 years of experience, a way with kids and “a deep voice in which to do my ho, ho, ho’s!” He wrote: “I will do about anything within reason except come down the chimney or jump off of the roof.”

Covay’s post was titled “Singing Black Santa” and contained little more than his phone number.

“I wasn’t sure if I did it right,” he confesses.

He is 63 and is used to conducting business in person, so he wasn’t familiar with how to market himself online. He also didn’t fully know what he was tapping into. He didn’t know that there was an app for black Santas, or that some parents go in search of one every year.

“We get asked where black Santa is all the time,” says Simona Noce, who along with Nikki Osei-Barrett founded District MotherHued, a D.C.-based group that brings together millennial moms of color.

The group’s Instagram page recently featured a picture of two children posing with a black Santa, along with this request: “let us know where to find #BlackSanta in the #DMV in the comments.”

“Representation, it really does matter,” Osei-Barrett says. She recalls how three years ago, some people were angry because the Mall of America in Minnesota featured its first black Santa. “Even though our kids don’t know it, Santa is a fictional character. Santa can reflect any ethnicity, any demographic — and Santa should.”

Noce says she grew up in Ghana, and even in Africa, Father Christmas was a white man. As a mother, she says, it’s important to her that her children see that “this guy who brings so much joy and excitement can look like you, can look like your dad.”

For the past two years, the group’s Christmas gatherings have featured a black Santa and Mrs. Claus, played by a couple known online as Kier & Them, who volunteer their time to read a story and hand out small gifts. Last year, from that gift-filled bag came tiny puzzles of a black Santa.

“It’s just amazing to be getting to a place where we normalize a black Santa,” Noce says. She recalls only one child this year looking at Santa with some skepticism. “One of the kids asked, ‘Hey, isn’t Santa white?’ And he was like, ‘Santa is whoever you want him to be.’ ”

Covay says that since putting on that white beard, he has learned that most children, regardless of their race or ethnicity, notice only the colors of his costume.

“They call me Santa,” he says. “They just see me like that. Even though they look at my color, look me in my face, I’m just Santa.”

Some children, he says, come up and hug his leg while he’s performing. Others sing along with him. More than a few have stood near him, waiting for their parents to snap photos.

“Chinese, white, black, all of them are taking my picture,” Covay says. “I do Bruno Mars, and a lot of them go crazy when I do. They don’t expect Santa to do Bruno Mars.”

Covay is the son of Don Covay, an R&B artist and songwriter who was friends with Otis Redding, helped discover Jimi Hendrix and wrote “Chain of Fools” for Aretha Franklin. Music was a huge part of Tony Covay’s upbringing, and when he’s in front of that microphone, his voice booming through an amp that he lugs on the Metro from his home in Suitland, Md., he looks at home. He switches easily between musical genres and comfortably interacts with onlookers.

As he sings in front of the museum that day, he waves at a woman who is aiming her phone at him.

“Merry Christmas,” he tells her. “Come give Santa a hug.”

She smiles, but keeps her camera focused on him for a bit longer. The sidewalk is mostly empty because it’s a cold day in the middle of the week, but a few people walk by and drop bills in the clear plastic bin by Covay’s feet. On a slow day, he says he can make $100. On his best, which was the day white supremacists marched through the District, the bin was brimming because of the counterprotesters.

Sometimes, people also toss in currency from countries Covay has never visited. One child gave him a marble.

After a week of that Craigslist ad sitting mostly dormant, Covay accepts that he’s not going to get that extra work. Even so, he doesn’t regret buying the suit. He says it keeps him warm, and it makes kids happy.

A couple and their four children, ages 2, 5, 7 and 9, walk by as he sings “Stand by Santa” to the tune of “Stand by me.”

So darlin’, darlin’

Stand by Santa, oh, stand by Santa

The 7-year-old smiles, waves and then cranes his neck to watch Covay until his parents herd him inside.

A short while later, a group of second-graders spill out of the museum’s doors, all puffy jackets and laughter. A cluster of bushes block their view of Covay, but curiosity causes one boy to stand on an elevated piece of concrete to get a better look.

“Oh,” he shouts, “it’s Santa!”

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