- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 19, 2013

For Phyllis Sartor and her 3-year-old grandson, Jesse, Santa Claus isn’t the face of a national debate over race and ethnicity, he’s the symbol of Christmas and the holiday spirit.

And if he’s black, like them, that’s just fine.

Making their way from Santa land at the Mall at Prince George’s this week, Ms. Sartor, 60, looked back at St. Nick sitting in his red velvet chair, a white natural beard covering his face.

“My daughter and I saw our first black Santa 40 years ago here,” she said. “It doesn’t make a difference to me, but it’s always good to see a black Santa.”

The mall — just outside the D.C. border in the most affluent majority-black county in the United States — for years has employed a black Santa, long before a pop-culture scuffle renewed awareness of how Santa Claus is depicted.

“I don’t think it’s ever been an issue,” said Victoria Clark, spokeswoman for the Mall at Prince George’s. “It’s something we offer that’s not offered at other malls in a county that’s still predominantly African-American.”

Numbers from the U.S. census show the black population in Prince George’s County is about 65 percent, or roughly 575,000 people.

She said the mall had been hiring a black St. Nick long before she started working there in 2007. Santa comes to the mall with the photography company contracted to produce the photos of Kriss Kringle and the smiling, staring, sobbing and sometimes sleeping children lined up with their parents to meet him.

“We have a diverse mall,” Ms. Clark said, adding that black, white and Hispanic customers pass through the Hyattsville shopping center on any given day.

Ms. Clark said even shoppers from out of state visit just to get their photos taken with the mall’s Santa Claus.

“One woman who lived in New Jersey did not have a hotel room, so she stayed in her car across the street,” Ms. Clark said.

The Cash family from Hyattsville has a long history of visiting the mall, but more for convenience than for Santa’s skin tone.

Gyasi Cash Sr. said he had been coming with his grandmother, Cynthia Gatewood, since he was a little boy. Joining them Tuesday were Mr. Cash’s 2-year-old son and 11-month-old daughter.

“We’re trying to keep this history in the family,” said Mr. Cash, 32, who said the race of the Santa who greeted his children didn’t matter. “When you mention Santa Claus, kids don’t think about race.”

All that matters, Ms. Gatewood chimed in, was that “children know Santa represents love, peace and joy for everyone.”

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