Black Santa at the Hayti Heritage Center
Pictures with Santa can be a precarious proposition, especially with young kids. But that didn’t deter parents from lining up Friday with their little ones in tow.
They brought their kids to Durham to spend time with the big man himself, and Santa didn’t disappoint. He was patient. He listened intently to every kid as they reeled off their wish lists.
For the youngest, Santa gently held them while photographer Stafford Braxton framed the perfect shot. The older kids beamed with joy as they plopped up on Santa’s lap.
If a kid balked, there was always the candy cane bribe. It worked every time.
Warren Keyes, 60, now has donned the red suit for four years. When Christmas season nears, he readily slips into his North Pole persona, eager to meet the children and hear their dreams.
“It’s a real treat to see the kids,” Keyes said. “That’s really why I do it. It’s very exciting to do because the kids already are in awe of Santa Claus.
“But when their parents come, sometimes they are seemingly overwhelmed with joy to see a black Santa,” he added. “When we were growing up, my age, it was never thought of and never could be a possibility.”
And that’s the draw.
Families from Durham and beyond trekked to the Hayti Heritage Center on Friday to spend time with Santa.
For parents with newborns, it was their first experience with Santa, let alone a black Santa. The toddlers, well they were the most likely to let their fear of strangers, even of jolly ol’ St. Nick, overcome them.
Nicolaus and Aria Rhenwrick brought their daughter Aubrey and son Nolan over from Raleigh for the chance to meet Santa.
“He was a jolly, friendly guy,” Aria Rhenwrick said. “I looked online and saw on friends’ social media that their children had taken pictures with Black Santa. So I was hoping it wasn’t too late. ... I thought it was important for our kids to see a Santa that looked like them.”
Tiffany Long brought her daughter Richlie in from Caswell County.
“I have a new baby and this is our first time out to attempt to take pictures with Santa,” Long said. “We found this Santa, and it was a great moment. It can be tricky with a six-month-old when you don’t have a lot of things to entertain them.”
Tarnisha Daniels-Casley brought her family from Knightdale.
“We were in Charlotte but we just moved here and it’s our youngest’s first Christmas,” Daniels-Casley said. “We decided to come see the Santa that looks similar to us. We thought it would be a good experience for our daughters. We’ve seen Santa Claus. Our oldest is three and a half so she’s not afraid of Santa Claus. She was able to talk to Santa.”
Jackie Rodgers of Cary was the first mom in line with her son Eli
“I have always loved Santa,” Rodgers said. “The spirit of Christmas is really magical, and Santa is that last little magic for kids. Two years ago he was petrified and wanted no part of it. Last year he was all excited about it, and this year we’ve had lots of talks about Santa.
“We used to live in Atlanta, Georgia, and there was one there. But that was before I had a kid. Once I found out there was one here in Durham, it was like, ‘Oh, we’re going.,’ I think it’s really important for him to see images like him and to see a Santa who looks like Pop-Pop.”
Braxton said he even had one family travel in from Chicago, though they did have relatives in the area and were down for the holidays.
By the time he takes his last portrait, Braxton figures more than 1,500 families will have visited Black Santa this season. The demand has grown each year. The first two years he appeared only in Durham and saw maybe a couple of hundred families each year. Last year there was a stop added in Cary. This year he’s taken Black Santa to new two towns: Raleigh and Greensboro.
Keyes said he feels the magnitude of wearing the red suit and the impact he’s having on both children and their parents. In December he played the starring role in the Durham Holiday Parade.
“I would hope it would register in their minds that they could do things they couldn’t do before,” Keyes said. “There are certain expectations. All of us as humans can see a person and then immediately make some judgment, for lack of a better term. I would hope that they think people would look at me differently and most importantly, I could look at myself differently and feel like there’s no limit to what I want to do. Maybe it will open the world up a little bit to somebody. That’s what I hope to accomplish.”