A Colorado mom’s search for a diverse Santa reiterates the value of representation

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Santa at Stanley Marketplace in Aurora on Wednesday, Dec.13, 2023.

This is a story that's 11 years in the making. Well, kinda. It all started with a question from a mom in Parker.

Artesia Kaborè, a wife and mother of two young kiddos posted a question in an online group for Black parents in Colorado well before the holiday frenzy got underway. She wanted to know where to find a Black Santa her kids could take Christmas pictures with this year.

“I just relocated to Colorado from Atlanta, Georgia this past March, and we had our second son in April, and I just want to have that experience for my youngest; the one that was just born, because I did that with my oldest son,” remembers Kaborè. “Being in Colorado has been an adjustment, coming from Atlanta, Ga. It's just a challenge to find a lot of things for Black people here.”

Her query immediately transported me back in time to just more than a decade ago when I had just relocated from Atlanta to Colorado with my husband too. It was our soon-to-be one-year-old's second Christmas. The first one had mostly been spent bleary-eyed in the fog of the seemingly endless responsibilities of caring for a newborn.

This year was different. Our son was walking and alert and as a longtime photo fanatic, I was ready to kick off an annual holiday tradition – our boy taking a pic with St. Nick. So, I too had asked, “Where do I find a Black Santa Claus in Colorado?”

I checked around and I'll spare you the details, but let's just say that despite my mama bear determination, I never found him. I was deflated. You see, growing up as a little African-American girl in the deep South, the mall Santas were always white. They looked nothing like my dad, my grandfather, or my uncles. By the time I made it to high school, things had changed. Black Santas were “a thing.” I knew it was a tradition I'd like to participate in when I had a family of my own. As an adult here in Colorado, I soon learned that would be tricky.

To this day, my children, now fast approaching their tween years, have never actually seen a Black Santa in the flesh. Well, besides that time someone's uncle dressed up at a local library event, but there was no whimsical photo backdrop or ornate chair and a professional photographer? Not even close. So that brought me back to mama bear Kaborè and her two little cubs, seven-month-old Elijah and four-year-old Matisse. Maybe I could make it right for them and do what I could never accomplish for my own fellas – find Black Santa in Colorado.

Once I talked to Matisse, I knew I had to try. You see, he's got a pretty specific request for the jolly one this year. He wants a bike and not just any bike; “a big bike,” he said.

After hearing that sweet little plea and armed with some sobering data – a national survey found that less than five percent of professional Santas in the country were of color – I set off to find a Black Santa in Colorado.

I went, I asked around, and eventually ended up one nippy Sunday morning in the Denver Tech Center. Outside snowflakes were drifting from the sky and inside my favorite Christmas album of all time, Jackson Five Christmas was blaring through a giant speaker in a hotel ballroom.

Black children decked out in holiday finery were crowded around the room, dining on a brunch of pancakes, sausage links, scrambled eggs, and hot chocolate with sprinkles. Fresh batches of cotton candy were being spun in the back. Yes, kid heaven, a real wonderland! The place was also packed with parents who were determined to give their children the gift of diverse representation this Christmas. I scanned the room and then I spotted him upfront on a small stage seated upon a regal throne; a real Black Santa in the flesh. A mocha-hued. Mrs. Claus sat alongside him. The kids were giddy, sharing their Christmas lists while sitting on his lap and posing for professional photos.

Black Santa Diverse Multicultural
Courtesy Artesia Kabore'
4-year-old Matisse Kabore' of Parker sitting with the Black Santa at Denver’s Cherry Creek Mall, and the photo he took with Black Santa in Atlanta for his first Christmas.

Black Santa and Mrs. Claus wouldn't give up their “other” names, but both said it brings them joy to represent diversity.

“It is important for our children, specifically our children, Black and brown children, to be able to see someone that looks like them, because so many times in the public, they don't get to see positive characters who look like them, that talk like them, that can relate to them,” said Black Santa. “So, it's very, very, very important that we minister the way that we do.”

Mrs. Claus echoed a similar sentiment.

“We really get a joy out of seeing the kids’ faces and it's especially important that they see a Santa and a Mrs. Claus that they can relate to; that's very important,” she said, noting that she chose to wear her natural hair, instead of covering up with a wig or hat. “I love my natural hair and at first I was going to try to hide it, but no. I was glad to see a lot of the people here also have locks. So, yes, I'm proud to be a Mrs. Claus with locks.”

This Santa soiree was hosted by the South Suburban Denver Chapter of Jack and Jill of America, a national leadership organization that African-American Mothers founded during the Great Depression era to create social and civic outlets for their children; Colorado has three chapters.

Event chair Katrina Little said she was determined to open the event back up to the general public this year after it went private during the COVID-19 pandemic because she believes diverse Santas matter.

“It brings it home, it brings everything home, being able to be in a safe space where you feel welcomed, you feel seen and you see yourself in the eyes of every child; in the eyes of Santa, in the eyes of all the aunties and uncles that were present. It's a place that we call home,” said Little.

Attendee Marlena Grant and her eight and 10-year-old sons, Maxwell and Marvin, agree wholeheartedly.

“The whole experience has just been great,” said Maxwell, who notes that growing up in Colorado she never experienced a Black Santa. “I think representation matters. So for our children to be able to see people in different roles such as Santa who look like them, I think is important. They need to be able to have that exposure.”

First timers, mom Maria Ware and her nine-year-old daughter Aria were also impressed.

“I am a Christian believer and I believe that God created us in his image. And so for me, when I think of Santa or when I think of anything or anyone, representation is important because we can't be what we can't see,” said Ware. “And to say that this meaning of Christmas should look a certain way and Santa Claus should look a certain way just doesn't align with what I was raised to believe my whole life, which is that we were made in the image of God. And so why shouldn't Santa look like me?”

For Auon'tai Anderson, who serves as vice president of the Denver School Board, he said that growing up in Colorado he'd always craved seeing a Santa who looked like him. Now as a father himself, he's doing his part to make that happen.

Although he didn't necessarily initially view himself as the Santa type, he said he jumped into the role without hesitation three years ago when he was asked to volunteer at a community toy drive and photo op hosted by Brother Jeff's Cultural Center located in Denver's historic Welton Street. It turned out to be a big hit; the line was wrapped around the block with families of all backgrounds waiting to take pics with Black Santa. 

And that first year his attire was, well, unique.

“We didn't have time to go get a Santa suit. So I utilized some Nike gear and wore a Nike tracksuit with some Air Force ones and threw on the Santa beard and hat and we made it happen, we made do with what we could,” he said “And definitely some of the kids were excited to see a Santa that was representative of their community. Some of the older kids didn't fall for it because of the lack of the suit, but most of our younger children definitely love the idea of seeing a Santa that looked like them.”

He said many of the kids had lots of questions.

“Some of them were like, ‘I thought Santa was white. Why does Santa look like me?’ And so it's always good to be able to celebrate our diversity.”

Auon'tai Anderson, vice president of the Denver School Board

Finding the “Blantas,” as some of my fellow Black Santa enthusiasts have nicknamed them, got me wondering what other diverse representations of Santa exist here. Indigenous? Asian? And what about Santas for the kiddos out there who don't speak English or those who don't speak at all? The good news is that I found them, most of them anyway.

Angelo Mendez has been the bilingual Latine Santa for three years now at the annual Camp Christmas event being held this year in Aurora.

“Sometimes their parents will come up and they'll be speaking Spanish, so then I will begin to speak Spanish to them and a lot of them are really surprised and I'm very happy,” said Mendez. “The parents seem pretty elated that I speak Spanish and the fact that I can basically talk to them in their own language, especially with the newer immigrants that come to the United States.”

Along with a white Santa, this year Camp Christmas also has a Black Santa and has even had an ASL-speaking Santa in the past so kids who are hearing impaired may share their Christmas list via American Sign Language.

Communications manager, Brittany Gutiérrez said her team doesn’t go out of their way to tip off guests about which one to expect at the photo display on a given day unless they ask; because they want kids of all backgrounds to experience a diverse mix of Santas.

It’s the same story at Stanley Marketplace also in Aurora. It has its own mix of Santas, including Black and Latino ones. Assistant General Manager Erin Streets said the diversity has been greatly appreciated.

“We've received Facebook messages and Instagram messages alike, just applauding our efforts and thanking us for providing Santas of all different kinds,” said Gutiérrez.

When you think about it, finding Brown Santa just makes sense. Latinos were the second largest racial or ethnic group in Colorado making up about 22 percent of our state's population. One way Stanley Marketplace paid homage to the culture this year was by hosting a mariachi band performance one Saturday near the Santa display.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
An ethnically diverse group of Santas gathered at Stanley Marketplace in Aurora on Wednesday, Dec.13, 2023.

Finding Asian Santa was much tougher; I had to dig deeper and search harder. Then I finally found him. His alias is Peter Trinh and his cover, if you will, is working as a character actor in productions across Colorado (because Santa can't just go around letting everyone know what he really does for a living). Trinh said interacting with kiddos and posing for pictures at the Winter Wonderland event held recently in Aurora was the role of a lifetime, something that would've meant the world to him growing up as an Asian kid in Colorado.

“I hold it in high regard; I think about how I would feel if I ever saw that,” he said. “I'm 41 years old and this was my first time seeing an Asian Santa and it’s me.”

Trinh said words can’t express how impactful it is.

“Representation is so important and it is always a reach for inclusion,” he said. “And I think growing up in Denver as an Asian American, you kind of just sink into the shadows and you don't feel as an active member of the community; you're just an observer because nothing about you is represented in what you see in mainstream culture and media. And being able to break that and be able to see an Asian Santa. I think as a kid it would've really helped me in my career. This is an avenue, this is a statement that we matter, instead of just being expected to be this quiet part of society.”

The Asian Santa Winter Wonderland event at Happy Living Adult Daycare in Aurora was a dream realized for organizer Annie Guo VanDan, president of Asian Avenue Magazine and executive director of the Colorado Asian Culture and Education Network. VanDan, mother to three kiddos under the age of six, said she was driven by a deep desire to ensure that her own children grow up seeing a Santa who looks like them.

“The goal of the event is really to provide Asian young people and families with the opportunity to see themselves and increase cultural pride and visibility,” she said. “And so the activities at the event were not necessarily Asian-focused. So we're doing things like face painting or bouncy houses and crafts the same way that they would get at any other winter wonderland event, but what makes it unique is that it is focused on our community and this is an opportunity for us to create a space that does not exist in Denver.”

As much as the event is for children, VanDan said she believes it was just as impactful for the adults.

“So part of it is kind of this dual feeling of you're almost doing it for your parents too, to give them kind of what they had wished we had and then also doing it now for our kids. I am hoping that future generations don't have to experience that same sense of denial of our identities because we never saw ourselves. And so it's kind of like an homage to both our parents and our kids.”

Courtesy of James Rowe
Interview with Black Santa and Mrs. Clause, December 2023.

Unfortunately, I never found an indigenous Santa, but if you know of one here in Colorado, please let us know. If he exists, I suspect there's a pretty persistent parent or advocate who made that happen.

Back to the Kaborè family in Parker, in case you're wondering whether mom ever got to fulfill her Christmas wish of finding Black Santa for her little Black sons, Elijah and Matisse, she did!

Turns out that the Black Santa from the Jack and Jill event also managed to fit in a short stint this season, working the photo display at Denver's Cherry Creek Mall. Mom made sure to get pictures of both of her sons with St. Nick. Matisse, of course, personally put in that order for that bike he wanted for Christmas. And not just any bike, “a Black bike,” he insists.

 I guess he'll have to wait until Christmas morning to find out if Black Santa delivered!