"Santa Camp" breakout on embodying Black Santa: "It is definitely activism for me"

Salon spoke to a new Kris Kringle in HBO Max's film about a school for aspiring Santas, whoever they may be

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published November 17, 2022 3:00PM (EST)

Santa Chris (John Tully/HBO Max)
Santa Chris (John Tully/HBO Max)

In 2020, the man who Nick Sweeney's "Santa Camp" introduces to the world as Santa Chris was simply another dad who wanted to give his young daughter the best Christmas possible. Part of that involved placing a large inflatable Santa Claus in the front yard of his Arkansas home, as millions of people do during the holiday season. Chris' outdoor decoration is remarkable in that, like his family, it has a dark brown skin tone.

That was enough to cause one of his neighbors to leave an epithet-laced letter at his home.

"Please remove your negro Santa Claus yard decoration," it read. "You should not try to deceive children into believing that I am a negro. I am a Caucasian (white man, to you) and have been for the past 600 years. Your being jealous of my race is no excuse for your dishonesty."

It went on suggest he move "out east with the rest of your racist kind." The bigot signed off with, "Yours truly, Santa Claus."

Chris did not move. Instead, he became a Black Santa, and in 2021 was invited to join members of the New England Santa Society at their annual summer gathering of Santas, Mrs. Clauses and elves.

Chris, who asked that Salon refrain from using his last name, is one of three Santas who attended the camp and made it the first inclusive class in the group's 10-year history.

Sweeney, the director of "AKA Jane Roe," distills this groundbreaking event into an emotionally complicated yet heartwarming portrait of a Christmas tradition long dominated by older white cisgender men and women. "Santa Camp" is an example of people with good intentions and insular views realizing they needed to expand the way they view the world, and the world views the figure they represent. This is how Chris, alongside a Santa with a disability named Fin, and a transgender Santa named Levi, came to spend time in the New Hampshire woods with fellow jolly folks both to learn the ins and outs of Santa professionalism, and to teach these old St. Nicks what it means for each of them to don the suit.

The premiere of "Santa Camp"' in the wake of a midterm election fueled by fear and division is a comfort, even as our culture's refusal to grapple with racism, ableism and transphobia remains top of mind.  A prime example comes by way of Chris landing his first big gig as the Santa at North Little Rock Christmas festival in 2021. He also noted that his debut was more sparsely attended compared to previous years' events. But he was also humbled to know that families traveled for hundreds of miles to see him.  

"The city of North Little Rock deserves props because they didn't have to do it," he remarked to Salon about his first Christmas festival experience. "They could have stayed away from the controversy, but they embraced it and had me as Santa Claus. And they're having me back again this year. So it's really good."

We spoke to Chris about what Santa meant to him before the letter and his "Santa Camp" experience.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How prominent was Santa Claus in your life when you were growing up?

Well, so the figure of Santa himself actually wasn't very prominent, because they are so few and far between. The reason that I have a love of Christmas is my father. In my hometown, he used to put up people's Christmas lights and decorate their houses. And they were the more well-off families. But when he had his time with me on the weekend, he would take me show me the work that he been doing all week, and it was just amazing to see Christmas lights all over these gigantic houses. And so you know it bred in me this want to get that kind of house and put up decorations and have family and have the Hallmark movie, Christmas thing.

But of course, Santa wasn't a part of it, because Black Santa, nobody really did it. You would see it here and there on an episode of a sitcom or something, but it was never something that was prominent or done very often.

When I was watching this, I realized how much I took for granted as a kid. Every Christmas our church had a Black Santa because one of the men in the parish would put on a Santa suit. But I also realized that was a conscious decision made by my parents to have us visit a Black Santa, realizing that when most people go to a mall, they're expecting to see a white Santa Claus. Is that anything that your family ever talked about growing up or was it just presumed that if you're going to the mall to get a picture with Santa, that Santa is probably going to be white?

Well, my experience is that a lot of Black families don't celebrate the Santa Claus aspect of Christmas because we didn't see ourselves reflected.

"The 'War on Christmas' thing, I think it is really out of a sense of loss for so many people that they have to now include people."

Very early on we know that Santa is not real, because he doesn't look like us. But for me, with my daughter, we had been looking for a professional Santa to go and have our pictures done with. Even before the letter, I had thought about doing it. I was going to dress up for our daughter and do it because she was little and all she would know is that Santa was there. But we were very deliberate.

When my wife had her, she spent a week in the NICU. I would go back and forth between the house and the hospital. So I wanted to do something special for them. And I found a four-foot-tall inflatable Black Santa. That's where the story began, was that I wanted my wife and daughter to come home from the hospital and have a Santa, and I wasn't going to put up one that didn't look like what I was.

And so every year we've added more and more decorations. We look all year long, find stuff on websites and have to order it. But we are very deliberate in making sure that our daughter sees herself represented in everything, that she sees that we are part of society and we're not some strange thing. We do regular things, and we celebrate Christmas. That's what we wanted her to see.

Over the last couple of decades, there's been a concerted effort to brand the "War on Christmas" and define what Christmas is for a certain segment of Americans, along with a demand that any kind of representation within Christmas be apolitical. One of the things that I was reading in the notes about "Santa Camp" is that you see this work of being Black Santa as a version of activism. Can you talk a little bit about that?

I mean, I honestly think that the reason that I got the letter is because I had Santa in the front yard where a Black Lives Matter flag was flying on our tree. There were the 2020 protests that happened, and me and my wife had gone out and protested. We donated. We are very pro-Black. And so it's supposed to be apolitical, but it is definitely activism for me, because my people are part of the community. We exist, we pay taxes, we do everything else. We should be able to celebrate Christmas, and decorate our yards however we want to. And if you don't like it, keep driving down the street or keep walking on. But don't bother people. Let people be happy. Leave folks alone.

The "War on Christmas" thing, I think it is really out of a sense of loss for so many people that they have to now include people. And some of it is they feel bad for not ever realizing that folks weren't included. And instead of having empathy, they get angry about it and get defensive when you should just be accepting and more loving towards people.

We see in the movie what you learned from or what's taught in Santa Camp, in terms of the different ways to be Santa. You also were the only Black person in this space where, as it was pointed out, this is a community that's dominated by older white men. What were some of the things that you learned and took away from the experience of being in that Santa Camp?

I learned that everyone is actually different. You have your character development things that you can do you make your character of Santa be unique and what you want it to be. And I learned that that's actually OK. It's OK to joke around the Santa is from the South Pole instead of the North Pole. Or, you know I have a friend that has a company called the Black Santa Company. He says Santa Claus doesn't eat cookies, Santa Claus eats brownies. That kind of stuff. It's okay to embrace the differences and make it your own and own it.

The filming of "Santa Camp" took place in 2021, which is when you said you had your first big Santa gig. And we see that in the aftermath of what had happened to you in 2020, that your neighbors also put up Black Santas. Was that a surprise for you?

"Adults need to move out of the way and let kids enjoy the season."

Yeah, it was definitely a surprise, because they organized that themselves. I never asked anyone, never sought it out. All of those people did that themselves. They got together as a group and decided to do it. But they did it without prompting from me or anyone that I'm related to. It was great to be driving home from picking up my daughter from daycare, and you just magically see a Black Santa. And then you look to the other side of the street, and there's another one. And then there's another one. It was great because my daughter is the one that pointed it out.

And it was the fact that people who I had never met, decided that they wanted to show what support was the best thing about it. They could have easily just not done anything. But there's hundreds of people that did, decided that they wanted to do something to show us that they loved us and accepted us as a part of the community.

What was that like for you, after everything that you went through?

So initially, it was a little crazy when the letter went viral. People showed up at the house, they'd bring gifts and all sorts of stuff. And because people would just show up, it's a little nerve-wracking. You don't know if someone is at your front door for good or bad. But you know, folks are dropping off ornaments and all sorts of stuff. The weirdest thing was there's a guy who works in cybersecurity who looked up my name and my voting records to figure out our address. And then he showed up at the house. That was the that was the strangest.

Yikes. He showed up in the house bearing gifts, or . . .?

Yes, he had a gift. But while I'm talking to him at the door, I have my hand on the bat behind the door. Because at the end of the day, like I said, it's a stranger who's showing up at your house and you don't know what their will is. But everyone that was coming by had nothing but goodwill to give to us.

And you know, there would be times during all of that where . . . every morning for like solid three weeks at about 6:15, someone would drive past our house, and just lay on their horn until they were past our house. And so one morning, I decided that I was tired of it. I basically told the police what was happening, they took care of the issue. It hasn't happened since then.

That was literally the only negative reaction that I had. But more people were just like, let people live and let families be happy. And that's what the ultimate message is: happiness for others. Let others be happy in what they're doing.

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The movie showed your first big gig appearing as Santa, and you said you've gotten this gig again. Have you gotten other gigs since? Are you doing more this year?

Yeah. So I have this gig again. I'm also Santa Claus for the Southwest Little Rock Christmas parade, and for the city of Maumelle's Christmas parade. I'm doing more photo bookings. I have a weekend booking, the weekend of Black Friday, with a photographer in Dallas. He contacted me. He really wanted me to come and do photos. I have some pictures in southern Arkansas. So people are just organically finding out about me more. And then, now that this film is coming out, they're gonna find out even more. My weekends are completely booked already through the end of the season. I anticipate next year is going to be even crazier.

What are you hoping that people will take away from watching "Santa Camp," in terms of the whole experience of being Santa?

I hope people realize that Christmas is for children. I have not had a single kid ever say anything about Santa being Black. They are simply happy to see Santa.

I just worked an event for a cancer center, the Sugar Plum Ball. It's a daddy-daughter dance. The dads were happy I was there. The girls were happy I was there. Nobody said, "Hi, Black Santa. They said "Hey, Santa." So: Christmas is for kids. They don't care. Adults need to move out of the way and let kids enjoy the season.

"Santa Camp" debuts Thursday, Nov. 17 on HBO Max.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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