OPINION: Black, transgender, person with a disability? Must be Santa

The last thing Nick Sweeney expected while filming a documentary about Santa Claus was that he would come face-to-face with the Proud Boys, the far-right organization with members currently on trial for seditious conspiracy charges in connection with the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.

But there he stood in late 2020 at a Chicago-area church where a Santa named Levi aka Trans Santa, was greeting children inside while a handful of the white nationalists gathered outside holding “Save Santa” signs.

“They are destroying Santa Claus,” said one member of the extremist group.

“And really, the Bible that I read says that this is a sin,” said another member.

From behind the camera, Sweeney pointed out an important fact.

“But Santa is not in the Bible,” he said.

The exchange was emblematic of our emotional connection to Santa Claus, a cultural icon that has evolved over thousands of years to suit our beliefs, whether those beliefs are real or not.

Sweeney was curious about how people become professional Santas when he came across Santa Camp, a New England-based summer camp that trains Santas nationwide. The group was getting requests for diverse Santas — Black Santas, LGBTQ+ Santas, Santas with disabilities — but did not have anyone among their ranks to offer.

It was clear to members of the New England Santa Society that it was time for change.

“Santa Camp” Sweeney’s documentary currently streaming on HBO Max, tracks a season of summer camp in which the Santa Society takes on the mission of diversifying the field of professional Santas. They enlisted a Black Santa, a transgender Santa and a Santa with a disability to visit Greenfield, New Hampshire, to learn the techniques and the business of being Santa.

In a 2021 national survey of 374 Santas, 82% said they became Santa because they had the look, size or image of Santa. That meant they were white, portly and bearded. Of those surveyed, less than 1% identified as Black, 1% were Latino or Hispanic and 1% were Native American.

Sweeney said he was shocked by how much resistance there was to the idea of Santa being anything other than a white, straight, cisgender man who does not have a disability and does have the ability to grow a white beard.

“Santa is kind and giving and anybody who embodies those qualities should be able to don the red suit and the white beard,” Sweeney said. “Families of all different races, genders and abilities love Christmas so why shouldn’t they be able to see themselves in the icon of Santa Claus?”

Chris, a Santa from Little Rock, Arkansas, was inspired to become a professional Claus when he received a threatening letter from a neighbor after putting an inflatable Black Santa in his front yard.

“Who would be so angry that they would sit down and write a racist letter and put a stamp on it and take it to the post office?” Sweeney asked.

Sweeney’s research for the documentary led him to my story about Minnesota’s Mall of America which in 2016 hired the first Black Santa in the mall’s 24-year history. In the story, I mentioned that many Georgia area malls make it a point to hire Santas of color, specifically the Mall West End which was one of the first shopping centers in the country to hire a Black Santa in the early 1970s.

The debate over who gets to see themselves represented, even as Santa Claus, is as old as time. Possibly even as old as Santa, an actual Turkish monk or bishop named St. Nicholas from the third or fourth century whose image would be reshaped by popular culture over hundreds of years until it became synonymous in America with the red-cheeked, bearded, fat man in a red suit.

In case anyone, Proud Boy or otherwise, is still confused, St. Nick is a non-Biblical Saint. His existence is not related to the birth of Christ.

Christmas was not a federal holiday in the U.S. until 1870. Writers of the time helped shape Santa’s image and shift the legacy of Christmas from a raucous pagan festival to a Christian, family-centered celebration during which diverse groups of people come together across the wealth and social gaps that divide them.

Before the rebranding of Christmas and Santa became so heavily entrenched in our minds, Santas around the world had always reflected the communities they represented.

“I learned in the course of this film how much Santa is an amalgamation of different characters and influences,” said Sweeney. “Santa has always been evolving … and Santa will continue to evolve.”

It was cathartic, he said, to watch Santa Chris toss the racist letter in the fire at Santa Camp and months later, during his first gig, greet children who had traveled hundreds of miles to visit their first Black Santa.

Sweeney, who described himself as Pakistani, Australian and gay, recalled his own aha moment when he wanted to ask Santa for a sari-wearing Barbie doll but somehow knew it best to keep that desire to himself. “I knew he wouldn’t get it or that I wasn’t meant to like dolls,” Sweeney said.

Watching a transgender youth tell Santa Levi they wanted to come out to their parents left Sweeney feeling hopeful. “You see how much it means to people to see themselves represented in Santa in those moments,” he said.

In allowing for all versions of Santa, we aren’t rejecting history. We are embracing what Santa’s history has always been and what Christmas traditions were always meant to be, both a celebration of our respective communities and a time to bridge our differences.

Before his untimely death in 2020, Santa Society founding member Dick Marshall offered a simple explanation of how we should view Santas across the spectrums of race, gender, identity and ability.

“God created no junk,” Marshall said, “so it doesn’t matter.”

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.