They do it for the kids, but these Santas are also pushing Christmas traditions forward
As diverse as they may be behind the beard, it’s still about hope and a little magic.
Holding fast to tradition is something Angelo Mendez thinks a lot about during the holidays, even as he’s helping to reshape the king of them all.
Mendez grew up celebrating Three Kings Day in Puerto Rican Harlem, a global commemoration of the magi’s arrival to greet baby Jesus. As an adult, he hung candy canes from his family tree, a rite he started while raising six kids in Denver. His grandchildren now come to expect them each year.
“The things used to always disappear … And as they grew, the candy canes began to be less and less, the the bigger they got. But I always kept extra boxes,” he chuckled as he pressed a white mustache onto his lip. “It’s important to do all of the traditions, because it keeps families connected.”
These things we do as ritual, which we pass to our children, are crucial, he said. But there’s still room for change. As a kid, he never met a Santa that spoke back to him in Spanish.
“When I do Santa, and as I’m getting into it right now – HO, HO, HO – I don’t forget that Santa, not only does he love sugar cookies, but he loves buñuelos, pastelitos de guayaba!”
Mendez, a longtime actor with Denver’s Su Teatro, is now one of four Santa Clauses who take turns greeting children at Camp Christmas, the non-religious holiday exhibition going on its third annual run. This year is its second at Heritage Lakewood Belmar Park and the second that organizers have intentionally filled their big velvet throne with a diversity of men behind the beard.
While Mendez said he thinks about the representation aspect of this role, his focus is usually on something less lofty.
“I always ask the kids what they want, of course, the normal stuff,” he said as he synched up his red suit. “But I kind of emphasize to them the importance of their parents and how they’re my main elves, and how it’s very important for them to give them hugs, you know?”
Still, he’s seen an impact as he’s shouted “Bienvenido!” to kids and parents walking into the cheerful array of decorations and lights. Eyes light up when his voice hits certain families’ ears.
Camp Christmas’ cast of characters changed after they heard from their audience, one moment in a much larger discussion on race, capitalism and tradition.
The holiday wonderland is produced by Off-Center, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ immersive theater division. Its cluttered, nostalgic vibe is the brainchild of Lakewood artist Lonnie Hanzon, a professional bric-a-brac collector who’s used found objects in sculptures for Denver’s Pride Fest and environmental fashion shows.
For Camp Christmas’ inaugural run in 2019, Hanzon pulled together a collection of 2,000 Santa sculptures to surround the bar. They were all white, he said, and his customers noticed.
“Yeah, there was a gentleman that wrote, ‘I walked into a bar with a thousand white Santas staring at me, and it told me that I did not belong.’ And it really, that really – it was a wake up call,” he remembered. “It was all collected stuff, and it just was an accurate but sad sampling of our society.”
Hiring a diverse cast to play the living legend was a relatively easy way to address the problem. In addition to Mendez, Off-Center brought on James Brunt, who is Black, and Jefferey Bigger, who communicates with kids in American Sign Language. But shoring up the bar was harder.
Hanzon is adding Black and brown Santas to his collection of figurines, though he’s had to “dramatically” change how he finds them. Once, he pored over dustbins from the Victorian Era and 1950’s America. Since the mass market didn’t include diverse faces on products for a long time, he said, he’s shifted his focus to stuff made in the last few decades.
There’s a direct link between America’s vision of Christmas and that mass market. One of the most influential renderings of Santa comes from artist Thomas Nast, who depicted the big guy giving out letters to Union soldiers in 1863. Coca-Cola gives itself credit for solidifying that image of a fat man in a red suit to their ongoing ad campaigns, which began in 1931.
It’s this imagery that philosophy professor David Johnson argued is at the root of the idea that Santa, a fictional character with fictional skin, is white. In 2013, he wrote a rebuke in Psychology Today to then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly’s assertion that the character “just is white.”
“Because he is a myth, he is made into what his followers need him to be,” Johnson wrote. “In capitalistic America, we needed him to move merchandise-to sell Coke and convince the populace (who was primarily white) to buy toys for our children. So he became a lovable white toymaker.”
Besides the fact that the man doesn’t actually exist, Johnson pointed out Santa draws influences from a cast of characters who also weren’t big white men. Krampus, the half-goat demon, was a Christianized version of a much older pagan fertility deity. St. Nicholas was from the area that became Turkey, if he existed at all, and probably did not have fair complexion. Belsnickel, a German amalgamation of Krampus and St. Nick, was often portrayed in blackface.
Kelly’s comments were a reaction to a column in Slate by Alisha Harris, who argued Santa should become something non-human, like a penguin, that would thus be stripped of race.
“America is less and less white, but a melanin-deficient Santa remains the default in commercials, mall casting calls, and movies,” she wrote in 2013. “Isn’t it time that our image of Santa better serve all the children he delights each Christmas?”
Robert McNamara, Camp Christmas’ fourth Claus, has been playing the role for 15 years and is a member of the International Brotherhood of Real Beard Santas. He said the group has been talking about representation at their annual conferences for “quite a while.”
While this debate is present, the Santas are really just focused on bringing kids some joy.
Four-year-old Ruthie caught sight of James Brunt as he made his way into work on a recent afternoon. She squealed as she registered his red suit from across the parking lot, then broke into a sprint towards him. Brunt, an actor who also appears this season in Off-Center’s “Theater of the Mind,” had already slipped into character.
“Hello!” he bellowed as she embraced him. “It’s so good to see you!”
Families are usually excited to see him, though he said he’s noticed a few parents who seemed uncomfortable with his performance.
“That kind of sucks, but you just keep moving and grooving, because the kids don’t care,” he told us.
Still, he’s glad to offer families a slightly different experience when he can.
“I think it’s a good thing, because people get to see themselves in all forms of like life, even in the mystical world, too,” he said. “It’s the one thing besides normal shows that gives me true joy. I get real joy out of it, and it feels really good to do.”
Jefferey Bigger, the “ASL Santa,” said he felt that in a profound way. He began signing for an acting job about 17 years ago, and has since become an interpreter. Last year, a kid with hearing impairment came to sit on his lap.
“I was like, ‘Hey, Merry Christmas.’ And his eyes got this big, and he ran up and jumped at me. And I was like, ‘I’m gonna cry,'” he remembered, a twinkle in his eye. “He was just like, ‘I didn’t know that Santa Claus could sign!’ It’s like, Santa Claus knows everything. So that’s why I’m back.”
If it doesn’t matter who is behind the beard, what is it that unifies the character? Each of the Santas responded with similar answers.
“I think he comes down to hope ultimately,” Bigger answered. “He’s about making your wishes come true.”
“Santa Claus is this being that brings all kinds of happiness to people that need it in the right time,” Brunt said. “It’s just like this constant reminder, this constant feeling that things are gonna be okay, and it just brings a lot of hope, because it doesn’t matter like what Santa looks like.”
And Mendez, heading towards eager children, told us: “La esperanza, that things are gonna be better. La esperanza, that life can be good. Those are the things that I feel.”