Seeing Santa in Black and White

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When my friend posted an adorable picture of her son with a black Santa in New York City, I was drawn to the idea of visiting a Santa who reflected my family’s skin tones. I’m black, and my 3-year-old son’s father is white. I am raising him as a single mom with the help of my parents. Why should white Santa be the default?

Of course, you can find children’s books that feature a black Santa Claus, and he appears in some ornaments and other products. The website, founded by the former N.B.A. player Baron Davis, sells products like T-shirts, hats and ornaments featuring images of black Santa. In a classic episode of “The Cosby Show,” Dr. Huxtable explains to one of the children that as Santa drops down each chimney, his race morphs to match that of the family he’s visiting – Asian, African-American, Caucasian and so on.

It’s a nice sentiment, but the reality is that black Santas are pretty hard to find. When the Mall of America in Minnesota enlisted a black Santa this year, he was popular with children but his presence prompted an unpleasant racial backlash online.

I decided to make an appointment for Macy’s Santaland at the Herald Square store, where my friend had seen the black Santa. I’d heard the option was by special request so I searched the form for some way to indicate that I wanted a black Santa. Black Santa isn’t advertised at all; he is known about mainly through word of mouth. After calling the store and experiencing a few rounds of dead ends, I finally found a secretary who explained that we just had to tell the elves when we got there that we wanted to see black Santa.

Elina Kazan, Macy’s vice president for media relations, would not discuss details about the store’s black Santa option. She said only that the store aimed to create “a magical experience” through the visit with “the one true Santa himself.” She added, “At Macy’s, we believe that Santa is all things to all people, and we uphold the tradition and belief that Santa is real for children.”

We rode up to the eighth floor and stepped into a picture postcard: There was a giant train, and trains are my son’s favorite thing in the world. There was a forest of beautifully decorated Christmas trees, fake snow, dim lights. There was even a wishing well where you could throw change in for children’s charities.

It actually was pretty magical. My son admired the trains circling the tracks and tried to climb into the displays while we waited. As some of Santa’s helpers began to lead us toward Santa, I pulled an elf aside.

“Can we please see the black Santa?” I whispered. He nodded and told us to stand off to the side. A few minutes later we were ushered into a little alcove. There sat Santa, a man the color of Hershey’s milk chocolate with a gray beard and a soothing voice.

But my son froze, so I gently led him over. “See, it’s Santa! He looks like Pop Pop!” I thought that drawing the parallel between Santa and his grandfather would be helpful, but he wanted none of it. Climbing onto a stranger’s lap was entirely out of the question for my son, who keeps his guard up around strangers. I sat next to Santa and my son sat in my lap for the pictures. He didn’t talk to Santa, but he did give Santa a high five when we left. At least he didn’t cry.

I knew there are many factors that can cause any child to be uncomfortable or even cry when visiting Santa. Itchy new clothes, long lines, being handed to a stranger and general sensory overload have reduced generations of children to tears on plenty of Santas’ laps. (We skipped the itchy clothes in favor of a kid-friendly shirt.) And my son is only 3, an age when the outrage of having to wear green socks when you wanted blue ones can be cause for distress.

We tried to see Santa again the next day, but this time we went closer to home, to the Staten Island Mall, which features a white Santa.

The reality is, my son had even less interest in Santa on day two — black or white — than he did on day one, and wouldn’t really go near him. He looked at me as if to say, “Did we not learn from this the first time?” In the picture he and I are kneeling next to Santa, but at least he’s smiling.

While you might think that seeing two different races of Santa would be confusing for a child, my son seemed not to notice. He has seen that Santa can take various forms on television and in books. While Santa never really looks the same, he always looks like a jolly man in a red suit. When it comes to Santa, perhaps my son is colorblind.

I did my best not to comment on either Santa’s race, but I want my son to know that Santa doesn’t have to look only one way. Santa can be whatever you want him to be. He may never want to go see Santa again, but he has photographic evidence that Santa can reflect the skin tones of both sides of his family. And that’s, well, pretty magical.