Tysons Galleria department store builds holiday buzz with first Black Santa

Santa Warren won’t arrive at Tysons Galleria for another 11 days, but he’s already making waves.

With his scheduled appearances on Dec. 18 and 19, Warren will be the first Black man to serve as Santa Claus for Neiman Marcus at Tysons Galleria’s winter holiday festivities, which kicked off on Nov. 26 with a visit from another Santa who assisted with curbside deliveries.

After years of white Saint Nicks dating back to its 1988 opening, the department store made a conscious effort to diversify its roster for this holiday season, citing its ongoing work to become “more inclusive and representative of our global community” in a recent media alert.

“We want to continue to connect with our customers and find ways to ensure our store represents our community,” Neiman Marcus Tysons Vice President and General Manager Kathy Leigh said by email. “This year our team brainstormed ideas [that] led us to hire the wonderful Santa who we are delighted to have join us at Neiman Marcus Tysons Galleria.”

To find the right candidate for the role, Neiman Marcus turned to Santas Just Like Me, a North Carolina-based company founded in 2013 to increase the representation of people of color in the Santa industry.

An event photographer, minister, and self-professed Christmas fanatic, Santas Just Like Me founder Stafford Braxton says his goal is to make the company all-inclusive, but the easiest way to market its work turned out to be emphasizing Black Santa “so that people would know what I am.”

Since recruiting Warren as the original Black Santa, Braxton has added five other men, and he remains on the lookout for Hispanic, Asian, and other kinds of individuals who would be interested in putting on the red suit. Even white Santas would be welcome.

The only criteria? A naturally white beard.

“I want to be able to provide all the different cultures a Santa that looks like them,” Braxton told Tysons Reporter. “That’s my heart’s desire.”

When Neiman Marcus reached out last month about a gig at its Tysons Galleria store, Santas Just Like Me quickly accepted the offer, excited by the prospect of breaking new ground as the venue’s first Black Santa.

For Braxton, the event is also meaningful, because it’s the company’s first in Virginia. He grew up in Yorktown and lived for 32 years in Richmond, where Santas Just Like Me has another event scheduled for the same weekend as its Tysons visit.

Initially, Neiman Marcus contracted Santas Just Like Me for a three-hour “Storytime with Santa” appearance on Dec. 19, but demand through word-of-mouth and social media was so strong that the store expanded the event to six hours, from noon to 7 p.m., and later added a second day (Saturday, Dec. 18, 2-8 p.m.).

When the events got booked to capacity, Neiman Marcus reconfigured it as a photo session without the storytelling component, though chocolate chip cookies and hot chocolate will still be provided to people waiting in line.

“The extensions have been filling up without additional outreach as the local community is very excited for [Santa’s] visit!” Neiman Marcus Tysons spokesperson Ashley Hunter-Perez said in an email. “The flyer is being shared heavily via Facebook, and we have guests coming from as far as a Newport News to visit with him. We’re already looking into additional dates and experiences for next season.”

According to Braxton, that level of enthusiasm for a Black Santa appearance isn’t entirely out of the ordinary. He recalls one event at a church in South Charlotte, North Carolina, where a 73-year-old woman showed up in tears, overwhelmed at getting to see a Black man as Santa.

“Earlier that day, her daughter and her granddaughter came to see us,” he said. “The mother bought the pictures and posted them online, and the grandmother saw them, and she made a beeline to where we were so that she could see a Black Santa in person.”

Those moments of connection and joy far outweigh the backlash that Santas Just Like Me occasionally encounters, primarily in the form of hostile phone calls. Braxton says he has one message saved on his phone that starts with a predictable racial slur as a reminder of why he does what he does.

He hopes to eradicate the notion that Santa has to look a particular way, which he suggests relates to how people conceive of fatherly or paternal love. After all, the original Saint Nicholas was a Greek bishop who lived in the area of Asia Minor now known as Turkey — a far cry from the snow-white Santa envisioned by most Americans.

“I don’t want it to always be it’s a Black Santa, it’s a white Santa. It’s just Santa!” Braxton said. “Everybody should be able to identify with Santa.”

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