While the cable news personalities debated Santa's ethnicity, Kristopher Smith, 8, faced a serious dilemma: Should he ask Santa for Ninja Turtle nunchucks or a Power Rangers sword for Christmas?
He still hadn’t decided when he came face-to-face with St. Nick himself at the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham. Beside him on Santa’s lap were his sister, Kirsten, 6, who asked for a new baby doll, and brother Kameron, 3, who wanted anything Batman related.
Kirsten whispered to Santa that her parents had a tree full of presents at home, but none of them were for her. Her mother, Stephanie, and father, Kristopher, had purchased toys for disadvantaged children at the Durham Department of Social Services and through the Angel Tree program.
"Well, if more people did that then everyone would have a good Christmas," Santa told her.
Stafford Braxton, who made portraits of Santa with families at Hayti, has been a photographer for 30 years, He has photographed Santas in the past, but more seriously since 2010. Each season families kept requesting a “black Santa” for their pictures and he saw an opportunity.
He first spotted Warren Keyes, 56, at a local mall. His full beard was as white as the Queen of England and immediately grabbed his attention.
Braxton approached him, explained his business and said “No offense but if you are interested in being black Santa give me a call," and handed him his card.
The phone never rang.
But he bumped into Keyes this past May at a wedding and they have been working together since.
"Santa is a mythical figure who has evolved over the years because of marketing. He was originally skinny, but then Coca-Cola made him fat in their advertisements ... but black Santas have been around forever,” he says.
Neither Braxton nor Keyes see what the fuss over Santa’s complexion is all about.
“Kids don't seem to see color but sometimes parents do. They want an experience they can relate to,” says Keyes, a “customer happiness advocate” at a local software company by day.
Braxton guesses, with a laugh, that some people “want to see something that represents them, they want to see people that look like them especially if they are going to sit in someone's lap."
- All photos by Justin Cook
“I just see the joy that it brings the kids, they don't care what color Santa is. They see the red suit and white beard and they are ready to tell him everything they want” he adds.
That’s all Randi Marley-Jones, 3, and her twin brother, Jesse, wanted to do when she squealed and crept towards Santa clutching her list of presents. She was decked out in a little red Santa dress.
“I like your dress; it looks just like my suit,” Santa chuckled.
Her mother, Tiffney, filmed the scene on a camcorder. Randi scampered back to her and clung to her dress as Santa offered her a candy cane. Mom ordered digital images from the shoot for her family.
“Santa can be whoever you want him to be,” said Myra Wooten, who came to the center with her son, Wilson Moore, 2, and fiancé, Ronald Moore. Making memories was the only thing that mattered to her, and she didn't want to wait in line at the mall. She would rather support the Hayti Center.
"It will be the first year Wilson can remember Santa."
Her family is scattered across North Carolina, Florida and Maryland and she got her holiday wish to see everyone on Christmas.
"It's the first time my family is all going to be together in five years!” she said. She ordered some digital files of the session to share with them.
Braxton said that about 53 families including a bus of full of 20 children from a local boys and girls club came to the Hayti Center to be photographed the weekend before Christmas.
While some see red over the black or white politics of the yuletide pigment debate, Braxton and Keyes see a lot of green. Their new company, "Santas Just Like Me" which will provide Santas of various ethnicities, rolls out in early 2014.
And Kristopher Smith finally decided to ask for the nunchucks.