For the first time in its 24-year history, visitors at the United States' biggest shopping mall will see a black Santa Claus greeting children and posing for pictures amidst the December holiday rush.
This week Larry Jefferson will be on hand as Santa, playing his part in the Mall of America's Santa Experience—an appointment-only photo booth that supplements the Mall's free, first-come-first-serve Christmas display.
"This is a long time coming,” Santa Experience co-owner Landon Luther told the Star Tribune newspaper. “We want Santa to be for everyone, period."
"It gives them something to identify with, but Santa is still just Santa,” Jefferson, an Irving, TX native, told WCCO. “Just Saturday, I was doing an event, and one child said, ‘Santa, you’re brown,’ and I said, ‘Yes, I am, but Santa comes in many different colors.’ He said, ‘Oh,’ so I gave him a candy cane, he ran off with other kids."
Jefferson, who is in the midst of a four-day stint at the MOA, was selected for the gig after meeting Luthor at a summertime "Kringle Family Reunion" Santa convention in Branson, Missouri. There, he explained to WCCO, he was the only person of color out of around 1,000 attendees.
"He said, ‘Hey, if you want to work in Minnesota, we’ll treat you nice," Jefferson told the Washington Post.
Adding to the significance of his holiday tenure at the MOA is the fact that Jefferson's visit comes almost exactly two years after thousands of Black Lives Matter protesters were actively cleared from the Mall by police officers in riot helmets. Twenty-five people were reportedly arrested as a result. A similar—albeit smaller—protest a year later returned to the mall, resulting in 13 arrests.
For many Minnesotans, Santa Larry's visit is a welcome addition to the holidays.
"Kids only see one image of Santa,” Shanene Herbert explained to the Star Tribune. Herbert heads St. Paul Public Schools Project SPIRIT, an after-school program for black children. “'Even though he’s a fictional character, he could be any color, any race, any gender. This is an image of him too."
According to the Santa Experience's website, appointment to visit Santa Larry at the Mall of America have already been booked solid.