Amid the stores, eateries and kiosks on Greenbriar Mall’s main level, there’s an easy-to-miss staircase that leads to a sort of mini-museum. The lower level, which houses some management offices and a quiet lobby area, has a long wall banner that outlines the shopping center’s history and defining moments.
One panel showcases a photo of a white-bearded man smiling and laying his finger aside his nose, like Santa is wont to do. The text beneath the image reads: “In 1994 Greenbriar Mall introduced its first black Santa, Willie Veal. For 19 years, until his death in 2013, he brought joy to children in Southwest Atlanta.”
Back upstairs near Burlington, it’s evident the new man in red, Eddie Simpson, is carrying on that tradition — if not making life for busy parents a little tougher in the process.
The whimsical holiday set that Santa Eddie calls home is conveniently situated near a play area and coin-operated “Dora the Explorer” rides. It’s there where shoppers are often seen trying to coax completely mesmerized kids away from the mythical man peering out at them.
Santa Eddie, who has occupied the holiday throne at Greenbriar for the past five years, is becoming a fixture like the beloved man before him.
One evening a week after Thanksgiving, Montrel and Decarla Wadley brought Kayson, 3, and Kailyn, 6 months, to pose for the quintessential photos. They’d brought Kayson to Santa Eddie last Christmas, and he was a hit. (The family went to Arbor Place Mall in Douglasville when Kayson was one, but his parents say he cried because he didn’t like the Santa.)
“We love (Santa Eddie),” Decarla Wadley said. “That’s why we came back this year.”
The experience is worth the 30-mile trek from the family’s Villa Rica home, with part of the appeal being the presence of an African-American Santa.
“It gives them something they can relate to, definitely,” Decarla Wadley said. “More so we had a great experience last year ... and for it to be the same Santa, and for (him) to remember my children from a whole year, that was special as well.”
The young mom showed off the freshly-printed pictures, describing Kayson’s “genuine and unforced” smile. Baby Kailyn may not have smiled — but she didn’t cry.
Since coming to the mall in 2013 — Santa Willie’s last year was 2011 and another Santa didn’t work out the following year — photo sales with Santa Eddie have increased every year, according to Marketing Director Shelly Baker. The shopping center has had a history of economic struggles over the years since opening in 1965.
Baker described Santa Eddie as something of a baby-whisperer who immediately puts smiles on parents’ faces too. He’s been popular beyond just the local southwest Atlanta community and black families, she said. Satisfied customers, including white families from as far as Canada and London, have posted on social media about their experiences with Santa Eddie.
“I do know we don’t have the only African-American Santa, but I believe we have the best,” Baker said. “He’s just very loving to the families and they enjoy coming back to see him.”
Black Santas being hired by malls is not a new phenomenon, but the concept has become more mainstream in recent years.
Last Christmas, Mall of America welcomed its first African-American Santa Claus. In metro Atlanta, Greenbriar Mall, the Mall West End and South DeKalb Mall — all located in predominantly black communities — have a long history of employing African-American Santas. The Mall West End was one of the country’s first to hire a black Santa in the early 1970s.
The Mall at Stonecrest offered both a black Santa and a white Santa in the past, but this year is only offering a white Santa.
Baker, who has worked for Greenbriar Mall for 16 years, hasn’t quite figured out how people from outside Atlanta learn about Santa Eddie.
Whatever the avenue, Baker says the mall gets inquiring phone calls on a daily basis. “It seems so weird because they’re whispering on the phone like it’s a secret: ‘Excuse me, ma’am, but do you all have an African-American Santa?’”
Sharron and Jason Sylvain weren’t one of those callers, but they did find Santa Eddie through an online search. They were in need of a black Santa for their daughter’s first Christmas photos.
The Sylvains, who met at Clark Atlanta University and live in the area, said they wanted baby Zoe to have an experience where she can look back and say, “That Santa looks like me.”
The meeting was a success. Baby Zoe didn’t shed any tears; she just studied his face, and even cracked a smile by the end of the visit.
Jason Sylvain joked with the soft-spoken Santa Eddie about the skateboard he didn’t get as a kid, and was told he missed the nice list by two points. The new father remembers coming to Greenbriar Mall for photos when he was a child. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, the man he saw would have been the legendary Santa Willie.
Holding photos of Zoe, the family said they’ll be back to see Santa Eddie next year to continue the tradition.
Greenbriar Mall is located at 2841 Greenbriar Parkway SW. Santa Eddie will be available for photos until 5 p.m. Christmas Eve; the mall closes at 7 p.m. that day. Reservations are available at celebrateyourholiday.com and photo packages are $29.99.
The mall will also offer holiday gift wrapping next to the Macy’s stage and hold holiday events and performances leading up to Christmas.