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."
The "sense of generosity and unmerited favor" is the key to the legend of Santa Claus, said Gerry Bowler, a professor at the University of Manitoba who specializes in the intersection of religion and popular culture, "especially Christmas."
"The color doesn't matter. It's the notion of magic," said Mr. Bowler, author of the book "Santa Claus: A Biography." "In 1821 this guy appears, dressed in a fur robe, pulled in a sleigh by a single reindeer. But for the next 50, 60 years, there's no single image of Santa Claus."
A couple of years later, the description is enhanced in the beloved poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" to portray a man with rosy cheeks and a cherry nose.
"By 1900, we've got red-and-white suited, booted, fur jacket and pants," he said.
That image is at the heat of a dispute that flared last week, when Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly declared on her program that "for all the kids watching at home, Santa just is white."
She made the comments in the course of a discussion about an essay in the online Slate magazine about the sensitivity of the traditional depictions of Santa.
Ms. Kelly subsequently said the comment was a joke, a "tongue-in-cheek message for any kids watching saying that Santa — who I joked is a real person whose race is identifiable — is white."
The comments were countlessly tweeted and linked, mocked on "The Daily Show" by comedian Jon Stewart and used as a punch line on "Saturday Night Live." But the debate struck a nerve.
As recently as Monday, reports out of Rio Rancho, N.M., said a teacher was placed on administrative leave after telling a black ninth-grade student to remove a Santa Claus costume because Santa is white.
Rashawn Ray, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, said it might not always be about Santa, but we see a "similar type of narrative come up every year."
"It might be who can be president, it might be who can be pope, what should the pope look like, or who should lead [news] anchors be."
With whites still the predominate group in the culture, "this means that prominent images, whether this is Santa, Jesus or the president, should be white."
But Santa's skin tone has never created a problem at the Mall at Prince George's, where the biggest concern is ensuring his beard is real.
Nydria Humphries said this was the first year she brought her 15-month-old daughter to visit Santa in Hyattsville.
The 28-year-old said she chose the mall partly because of its St. Nick.
"I didn't have to change trains," the Southeast D.C. resident said, "and I thought he was going to be black."
Watching as her daughter sucked contentedly on a candy cane, Ms. Humphries said a friend told her about the mall's Santa and, based on the community around the shopping center, "it would have been odd if he was a white Santa Claus."
"It's largely African-American," she said. "But he's a fairy tale. He's whatever you make up in your mind you want him to be."
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