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Mall of America’s black Santa calls Minnesota ‘nice,’ despite naughty trolls

"Santa Larry," the Mall of America's first African American Santa, said nobody in Minnesota was naughty to him during his four-day stay in Dec. 2016. Photo courtesy of The Santa Experience.

ST. PAUL — “Santa Larry” picked up his phone Thursday, Dec. 8, on the way out of his latest gig, in Dallas.

It was actually pretty cold down there; he was thankful for the thick, red suit. And he wanted, badly, to talk about the four days he’d just spent in Minnesota.

“I want to tell everybody how wonderful Minnesota was to me,” Santa Larry said.

He’d made national news the week before: the first African-American Santa to formally appear at the Mall of America. Online backlash, highlighted by national news outlets, began over Santa’s skin color, with some posts calling for a boycott.

But as for Larry, he didn’t hear a single naughty word. And he was fully booked.

“Kids see Santa in a red suit and white beard and he’s got candy. And he says ‘Ho ho ho.’ That’s all they see,” said Santa Larry, known in Texas as Larry Jefferson, of Irving. The career Army veteran refused to give his age: “One child told me I was 500.”

Parents seized the chance for their kids to pose with an actual black Santa. “People were crying and emotional, and I was very humbled by that,” he said. “One lady called, said ‘I’m bringing my baby.’ The owner asked, ‘Where are you?’ She said Arizona. I just thought that was incredible. Incredible.”

Landon Luther, co-owner of The Santa Experience — a storefront enterprise that has booked semi-private meetings with Santa and families at the Mall of America for a decade — noted that after the first day when word got out, “Santa Larry” was fully booked. People flew from Washington, New York, Oklahoma.

In all, 550 families — including 1,200 children — came to see Larry, who was the premier attraction for the Santa Experience’s new, second Mall of America location.

“We were not expecting it. We would’ve been really happy if we were a quarter booked, since it was our first year opening that second location. To sell out three out of four days, that was completely unexpected,” Luther said.

“I think the coolest part about it, the folks that came to see Santa Larry were black, white, Asian, Hispanic. It felt like there was a sense of unity about it. … Out of my ignorance, I would have assumed that only African-Americans would have been in line, but that wasn’t even close to the case.”

Jefferson, who retired as an assistant chaplain for the U.S. Army last year after decades of service, recalls the same: “It really was a huge mix.”

One parent said: “Thank you so much. This is what our country needs.’ ”

Another man on the phone, who said he was Jewish: “‘I don’t celebrate Christmas, but I really want to thank you for what you’re doing.’ ”

It was less a Christmas Miracle than a plan coming together in the best possibly way. This past summer, Luther sent his most experienced Santa, Santa Sid, down to a Santa convention (yes, of course they have those) in Branson, Mo.

“I sent him down with a business card and a mission: Hand them out to any and all Santas of color. We want to broaden our horizons.”

There were upward of 1,000 Santas.

“He came across one, and only one. There were 999 white Santas, and Santa Larry,” Luther said.

Luther asked whether Larry had a real beard — one of his primary requirements. Larry had been playing Santa with a fake beard since 1999. But he’d just retired from the Army: For the first time in decades, he had a real one.

By the end of the month, “Santa Larry” had a four-day gig at the Mall of America, Dec. 1-4.

Certainly there have been African-American Santas at smaller venues: the Golden Thyme Coffee and Cafe in St. Paul has been hosting one for years.

But the reach achieved at Mall of America became quickly apparent to Luther and Jefferson.

“What stuck in my head, when families were in that room, there were so many African-American families that had never had their picture taken with Santa. Adults in their 20s were getting their picture taken, because now there was a Santa they could relate to and identify with.”

Both recall shaking a lot of hands.

Still, unlike Jefferson, Luther did get a trace of bad feedback.

“Nothing in person. … One phone call, one angry email from same person, saying it was a disgrace. But nothing in person.”

Added Jefferson, who retired from the Army as a chaplain assistant: “Those people are Grinches; they’re not happy people. And Santa’s a happy character. If you want to continue on being happy during the holiday season, make someone else happy. Buy a suit and share the love,” Jefferson said.

“Let’s share the holidays and have a merry Christmas.”

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