Larry Jefferson has been putting on a big red suit and perfecting his best ho, ho, ho for nearly 20 years.
The retired Army captain plays Santa at shopping malls, holiday parties and charity benefits. He hit the big time this year when he was handpicked at a Santa convention to appear at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.
And by all accounts, kids and parents at the mall loved him. But when the story spread online, the negative attacks starting pouring in — because Jefferson is black.
Jefferson says the online negativity didn't surprise him — "because of the times in which we are living in" — but, he adds, "that backlash was only a small percentage."
For Santa Larry, as he likes to be called, playing Santa pretty much seems to be his calling in life. "That's what all my friends are telling me, despite what the mean-spirited Grinch people are saying online," he tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "They're going to get coal ... for sure."
Click on the audio button to hear the full interview.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Larry Jefferson has been putting on a big, red suit and perfecting his best ho-ho-ho for nearly 20 years. The retired Army captain plays Santa at shopping malls, holiday parties and charity benefits. And he hit the big time this year when he was handpicked at a Santa convention to appear at the Mall of America in Minnesota.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And by all accounts, kids and parents - just about everybody at the mall - loved him. But when this story spread online, the negative attacks started pouring in because Larry Jefferson is black. Santa Larry, as he likes to be called, is now back home in Irving, Texas, and we called him up via Skype.
LARRY JEFFERSON: Ho-ho-ho. Good morning, Rachel. How are you?
MARTIN: I am doing just fine. Thanks for making time. It's a very busy time of year for you, for many reasons, so...
JEFFERSON: Yes, it is. Yes, it is.
MARTIN: So let's talk about what happened in Minnesota because it's not like you're the first African-American man to put on a Santa suit. Black Santas are popular all over the country. And the response to you in Minnesota was overwhelmingly positive, so were you surprised at the online backlash?
JEFFERSON: Not really because of the times in which we're living in. But, you know, that backlash was only a small percentage.
MARTIN: So this was significant for this mall. In its 24-year history, the mall had never had a black Santa. What was it like when you were greeting the kids and the families? Do you think the kids there saw you differently at all?
JEFFERSON: No, not at all. They were loving Santa Larry. I mean, people were coming and giving me hugs. Minnesota is nice. I love Minnesota. They treated me like royalty.
MARTIN: Where did you grow up? I mean, the North Pole probably, but, you know...
JEFFERSON: Yeah, exactly - North Pole via a little, small town in Arkansas called Nashville, Ark.
MARTIN: And how did you conceive of Santa Claus when you were growing up? Was he a big, bearded white guy?
JEFFERSON: Yeah, of course, of course. And that's what I would see on television at times. But it was all so mystical how he would come to my house and put those presents up under my tree.
MARTIN: Jefferson caught the Santa bug early. He was about 11 years old, and he got to help put the presents under the tree. The next morning, he woke up all the children.
JEFFERSON: And to see that joy and excitement on my nieces' and my siblings' face, it was unbelievable. I loved it.
MARTIN: Decades later, he donned the red suit for the first time. When he found out his nephews were not going to see Santa that year, Jefferson decided he would bring Santa to them, so he went to Wal-Mart and bought a Santa suit for $29.99.
JEFFERSON: I put that Santa suit on in my house, and I was walking around in the house laughing to myself and thinking, oh, my gosh, this is fun. And so I get to my little brother's house, knock, knock on the door, door opens. There are three of these little boys in their pajamas. And they just freaked out. It was like, oh, my gosh, it's Santa Claus. And I walked in, gave them some presents and all kinds of stuff, and then I disappeared. After I left, my sister-in-law called me, and she was like, Larry, I asked the boys if they knew who that was, and they kept saying, yeah, mama. It was Santa Claus. It was Santa Claus. And that's how - it made me feel so good that I loved it, you know?
MARTIN: I have to ask you, what are kids whispering in your ear this year? Are they asking for anything particular?
JEFFERSON: Oh, toys, trucks, bicycles, cellphones, iPads.
MARTIN: IPads? Wow.
JEFFERSON: They're asking for everything. One child says, I don't want anything, Santa. I just want everybody to be happy.
MARTIN: Oh, good for you, little boy. Well, Santa Larry, I got to say, it - it sounds like you have found your calling in life.
JEFFERSON: That's what all my friends are telling me...
JEFFERSON: ...Despite what the mean-spirited Grinch people are saying online, you know? They're going to get coal - ho-ho-ho-ho-ho - for sure.
MARTIN: Santa Larry speaking to us from Irving, Texas. Santa Larry, merry Christmas to you.
JEFFERSON: (Singing) We wish you a merry Christmas. We wish you a merry Christmas. We wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year. Thank you, NPR.
MARTIN: Any time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.