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The annual search for Black Santa

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While other families eat their Thanksgiving leftovers, San Diego father of two, Robert Juengst, gets to work. The 58-year-old scours Reddit and local newspapers looking for an answer to his question — where can he find a Santa for his son — one who looks like him? “I’ve struggled to find Santas that look like everyone,” he says. “I told my daughter, long before we adopted [our son], that Santa isn’t white. He’s not black. He’s not Chinese, he’s not Iranian. He’s simply one of these things, like fairies, that exist.”

This might seem like a manufactured struggle, but this plays out the same way across the states. Parents of all ethnicities are searching for diverse Santas for their kids — from black to Latino to Asian.

Overall, predominantly white Santas abound — a look through Santa training school and entertainment hiring services like Gigmasters shows large numbers of Santas for hire; white Santas, that is. This is despite the growth rate in Santa services — over at gig hiring site Thumbtack, communications manager Mimi Huggins reports a 77 percent growth in Santa Services since 2015, with prices averaging $240 an hour.

For Juengst, the chance to take his children to a black Santa is about setting precedents for them; instilling the concept that Santa is about love and sharing. His eldest daughter, 12-year-old Olivia, doesn’t believe in Santa anymore, but his 9-year-old son, Mickey, still has a sense of wonder. And it’s this innocence that Juengst wants to preserve — as Mickey grows older, Juengst is increasingly aware that his skin tone (he was adopted from Africa) could make him a target. He discusses racism with his children, the idea that “some people out there don’t like people for the way they talk or look or fall in love,” — but says as they live in a liberal area, this is more conceptual for the children.

Two years ago, after a day of Santa hopping from store to store, Juengst found the children’s first black Santa in a Vietnamese area of San Diego. They lined up, took the requisite picture, and whispered their requests. No big deal was made — no tears, laughter, teasing. Juengst was happy at their lack of reaction. “I wanted [black Santa] to be normal and [my son] didn’t make a big deal of it, that was the best part,” he says. “I’ve always told the kids that Santa’s a million different people and stands for love and giving.”

Tedera Lipsey echoes this philosophy, and in 2011 the Atlanta-based marketing manager for Zipcar took action. “I wanted to have a black Santa the kids can relate to — it makes it more believable for them,” she says. Lipsey felt the lack of diverse Santas was damaging — and as a self-professed Christmas fanatic (she starts decorating the morning after Thanksgiving), she wanted it to be special for everyone.

She decided to change this; stuffing local volunteers into red velvet pants and teaching them the right way to “Ho Ho Ho.” This year, she went commercial, building the website Atlanta Black Santa, hiring three Santas, and sending them to gigs across the state. “There are not enough black Santas,” she says. “We’ve had people ask for Hispanic and Asian as well — we want to expand so people can have whatever Santa they want.”

While businesses like Lipsey’s are a step in the right direction, the Santa business is still short on diversity. “Most of my Santas are white males,” says Santa Tim Connaghan, chief executive of Santa booking agency “We have a few black Santas, but less than 3 percent of professional Santas have an ethnic background.” From his perspective — both as a businessman and a provider of seasonal joy, the more multicultural the better. However, Connaghan defends the heat that shopping malls have taken for their whiter than white jolly red men — they’re eager to find diverse Santas. “They’re not trying to discriminate,” he says. “They’re trying to find them, there’s a demand for them.”

In some ways, the shortage could be attributed to the Santa process; typically professional Santas  provide their own suits, and this means an outlay of $500 plus. Then there are the requirements; Real Santas only accepts real bearded Santas, and many seasonal Mr. Claus portrayers resort to beard bleaching for white whiskers — something a wannabe Santa might be reluctant to do, despite the $1,800 a day rate at peak time.

Which means the struggle goes on. Take 34-year-old James Milburn from Fort Worth. In 2015, after weeks of searching, he found a black Santa in a Dallas mall — the perfect lap for Ben, his 3-year-old son who is mixed-race, to sit on. “I wanted him to see more than the typical whitewashing of things,” he says. But Milburn was undergoing rounds of chemotherapy and radiation and the 70-mile round trip had to be called off, due to treatment side effects.

Today, it’s been almost two years since Apple introduced a black Santa emoji, and toy company LEGO featured a black LEGO Santa on the front page of its website in 2014. And in early November, former NBA player Baron Davis launched the Black Santa Company, selling themed products, including T-shirts, sweaters and Christmas ornaments — their larger goal is to use diverse characters in storytelling to promote cultural inclusion and giving, no matter the season.

Santa Connaghan sums it up best. “Everything we do is for the children, and if a black Santa fulfills their dreams and expectations, maybe they’ll believe a little longer.”

Zara Stone is a San Francisco-based freelance journalist who reports on the intersection of technology, lifestyle and culture. Follow @almostzara.

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