Seven-year-old Anijah saw the man in a red suit and white beard and asked her mother: “Is that the real Santa?”
She had never seen a black Santa, and thought if he were fake she might not get the toys on her list. And she really did want the hoverboards and the L.O.L. Surprise! dollhouse.
Her mother, Davonna Vonkeyes, 48, of North Philadelphia, used this moment to teach her daughter that Santa was not only white like the images on posters, in TV shows, and the people traditionally portraying him in most malls and department stores.
“It’s cool to see black Santa in person,” Vonkeyes’older daughter Adayah, 9, said after having her picture taken.
The Fashion District, the former Gallery, is ushering in its first holiday season since opening in September, and the families visiting what they called “the old Gallery” on Sunday said they were happy to see a Santa who reflects the diversity of Philadelphia.
“It’s a good thing they did bring black Santa down here because there’s a lot of black children, black and brown children, coming here with their parents,” said Vonkeyes, who described herself as multicultural, a mix of black, white, and Indian. “So I hope it does good.”
The city is 44% black as of July 2018 Census data, and the Gallery, according to Elijah Anderson, a sociology professor at Yale University who wrote The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life, used to be “kind of a haven for black working-class people."
The redevelopment of this large public space in Center City made some residents worry it would become gentrified. But people who loved the Gallery have been coming back to see the Fashion District, even if they can’t stop calling it by its former name.
“At the District, we believe in creating an inclusive experience for Philadelphia residents, commuters, and visitors — and the holiday season is no different,” Heather Crowell, a spokesperson for mall co-owner Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT), wrote in a statement. “We’re thrilled that Santa is celebrating the holidays at Fashion District, spreading positivity, acceptance, and holiday cheer to our vibrant city of Philadelphia.”
Former Gallery shopper Juliana Hill, 22, traveled to the new version Sunday with her 3-year-old daughter, Ayla Robinson. She had heard about the black Santa on Facebook and came specifically to see for herself.
“I’ve never seen a black Santa,” said Hill, who is black. “When we do have that representation I do want to support it, so that we can ... keep seeing our black faces everywhere.”
Other cities have also included more diverse Santas, contrary to the conventional photos of St. Nick as a white man. In Minnesota, the Mall of America had its first black Santa in 2016 and “Pancho Claus” wearing a zoot suit has appeared in Houston for decades.
Retail and technology companies also have added black Santas. In 2015, Apple added a dark skin tone option to its Santa Claus emoji, and in 2016, former NBA player Baron Davis launched the Black Santa Co., selling ornaments, T-shirts, and cardigans with a smiling, black Santa.
The man behind the suit at the Fashion District is David Hendrix, 67, of Madison, Wis. He’s been portraying Santa for 20 years and knows how rare it is for many children to see a Santa who looks like them.
“It makes me feel proud," Hendrix said. “I think my grandparents would be proud of me for doing this."
Sunday was the first time that 16-month-old Aiden Williams saw Santa. His great-grandmother, Sandra Williams, 64, held him as Santa walked up to his seat greeting everyone.
“Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!”
“We waited, Santa,” Williams, of South Philadelphia, said to him. It was finally time to get Aiden’s pictures. All the photos Williams has of her own children with Santa are with white men, and she was excited for Aiden’s first Santa experience to be with someone who is also black.
Aiden stared at Santa’s beard and played peek-a-boo while sales associates took photos. After getting the pictures of smiling Aiden, Williams said, “we need more black Santas.”
Hydiya Abubakar, 24, a sales associate with Cherry Hill Programs, the company providing the Santa experience at the Fashion District, watched as smiling children ran over to tell Santa what they wanted for Christmas and parents tried to get babies to smile at the camera for the professional photos.
“What Santa represents is very jolly, very kind, very warm, loving,” Abubakar, who is black, said as Santa posed with more mall visitors. “So the fact that they’re portraying black people, like you can be Santa, too, it takes off negative images of what you might think a black person is.”
Inquirer staff writer Cassie Owens contributed to this article.