William Parmer of Akron can’t see a time when he doesn’t suit up as Santa Claus.
“It’s like I got addicted to it,” Parmer said Saturday as he prepared to greet children at the annual Christmas party in Joy Park Community Center in Akron. “I don’t think I’d ever retire from being Santa.”
The 59-year-old juvenile counselor made his first appearance in a red suit at the Ed Davis Community Center in Akron about 25 years ago. The young people at the center wanted to see Santa and, in many cases, could not get to the local malls where Santas were most common, he said. Already working in recreational activities for the center, he agreed to play Santa. Later, he did the same at the Summit Lake center and Joy Park. He has also appeared at church events and private functions.
The work has changed some over time; Parmer said he has gone through two Santa suits and is getting ready for a third. Focusing more on his health, he has lost weight from his previous Santa days and adds padding to his 250-pound frame.
Still, Parmer, who is African-American, is part of a rich history of black Santas. Amazon.com sells dozens of holiday items with Santa as African-American. There was at least one television program with an African-American playing Santa Claus in 1952. Gail Ghetia Bellamy’s book Cleveland Christmas Memories has one contributor recalling an African-American Santa around 1962 or 1963. The local Urban League and Akron’s Eta Tau Lambda chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity have sponsored events with African-American Santas over the years. The Akron area had its first full-time African-American mall Santa, Walt Powers, more than a decade ago.
Yet the 2013 holiday season has included an argument about Santa’s ethnicity.
About two weeks ago, Slate.com culture blogger Aisha Harris wrote about seeing Santa in both white and black form when she was a child, but that the white version dominated then and now. This was a problem for young African-American children, she wrote, “because when you’re a kid and you’re inundated with the imagery of a pale seasonal visitor — and you notice that even some black families decorate their houses with white Santas — you’re likely to accept the consensus view, despite your parents’ noble intentions.”
Harris proposed Santa take a new, less ethnic form: that of a penguin. Then Megyn Kelly of Fox News, while moderating a discussion of Harris’ essay, proclaimed, “For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white.” (Jesus was, too, she said. But let’s focus on Santa.)
This prompted a lively debate across media, with theologians and historians weighing in about the history of Santa Claus, his roots in Turkey and Greece, and the possibility that he originally had dark skin.
Kelly later claimed she was trying to be humorous and that any suggestion otherwise was race-baiting. Bill O’Reilly of Fox News at once agreed that “the spirit of Santa transcends all racial boundaries,” argued nonetheless that the historic Santa “was a white person” and blamed the controversy on “the far left.”
Only, in New Mexico, a high-school teacher allegedly insulted an African-American student dressed as Santa. Reuters reported a claim that the teacher said, “Don’t you know Santa Claus is white?” The school district then called the comment “inappropriate,” and the teacher both apologized and was put on administrative leave.
The idea that Santa is only white persists. Black mall Santas are relatively rare; one national company handling mall Santas refused to discuss the topic beyond saying it was an equal-opportunity employer when I called, and another acknowledged only that it had “several” among its 300 Santas.
Parmer, who said he was unaware of the recent white-Santa controversy until Saturday morning, nonetheless wondered if a black Santa makes some folks uneasy. After a couple of turns as a Lock 3 Santa in Akron in the past, he said, “I don’t know how it went over, but after that I wasn’t invited back.”
At Joy Park, though, where dozens of children and their parents had gathered for a free breakfast, gifts of hats and gloves and a photo with Santa, Santa was black. And little faces lit up when Parmer — by now in his suit, with a thick, false white beard over his thinner real one – greeted them. Parmer thought his dark skin made a difference to the kids, most of whom were African-American.
“I’m someone they can more, like, relate to,” Parmer said. “They pretty much feel that they can open up.”
Yet he thought being Santa was not about being only black or white or another color, that children needed to see society as culturally diverse. He said he would never want to stunt any child’s growth by suggesting race limited what they could be. The table decorations at Joy Park underscored that. Some had a white Santa, some a black one.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.