Arkansas Man's Journey to Become Black Santa Captured in HBO Max Documentary

Arkansas Black Santa, Chris Kennedy

Images provided by HBO Max

By Pamela Acosta

What started out as a racist note left on Chris Kennedy’s front yard in North Little Rock, Arkansas has turned into a heartwarming Christmas story of representation and resilience… and an HBO Max Documentary.

Two years ago, Kennedy decided to put up an inflatable Black Santa in his front yard so his daughter would see a Santa that looked like them. 

But one of his neighbors had a different idea. The family received an anonymous, racist letter asking them to take down their decorations. 

“Please remove your negro Santa Claus yard decoration,” the letter read. “You should try not to deceive children into believing that I am negro. I am a caucasian (white man, to you) and have been for the past 600 years.” The letter was signed by “Santa Claus.” 

So Kennedy went out and bought a second inflatable Black Santa. And his neighbors followed suit and put up their own inflatable Black Santas in solidarity with the Kennedy’s. 

But Kennedy wanted to do more to make sure his daughter saw herself in the jolly Christmas icon. So he went out and bought a Santa Claus suit and dressed up to take pictures with his daughter. 

“I decided to become Santa Claus because I wanted to have photos with Santa with my daughter, with a Santa that looked like us. It was a goal of mine from the time that she was born to make her feel seen and be represented,” said Kennedy. 

As more and more people saw Kennedy’s portrayal of Santa, it snowballed into a movement in his community and beyond. 

Kennedy was approached by the New England Santa Society to join their annual “Santa Camp.” The Society was making its own strides to diversify the Christmas icon and Kennedy jumped at the chance to hone his skills and become the best Black Santa possible. 

Kennedy’s story and portrayal of Santa even caught the attention of HBO Max, who recently produced a documentary that follows his journey as he becomes a registered Santa along with a person with a mobility disability, and a trans gender Santa and his wife, a lesbian woman. The three join a group of about 100 other people in New Hampshire to learn and become Santa. The docu-series, Santa Camp, is available to watch on the streaming platform. 

But Kennedy’s impact as a Black Santa extends far beyond media attention. As the only registered Black Santa in Arkansas, he is able to bring joy and representation to children who may not have otherwise seen themselves represented in the holiday icon. 

Kennedy’s dedication to making every child feel special and seen is evident in the way he personalizes each Santa visit, greeting each child by name and bringing his own unique personality to the role. 

In his own words, Kennedy stated: “I am allowed to let my own personality come out through the role…I’ll sing if I need to…or do whatever I can to make kids smile for their photos.”

While the fame and attention is appreciated, Kennedy’s true joy comes from being able to give children, especially Black and Brown children, a magical and memorable experience with Santa.

“For White kids, they’re just meeting Santa. But for Black and Brown kids, they’re super happy because Santa is more of a representation of them,” said Kennedy.

He recalls one memorable moment when a little Black boy touched his hand and said, “You’re brown just like me, and another time, an 80 year old woman from Mississippi asked her daughter to drive her to Arkansas because she had never seen a Black Santa.

These experiences, as Kennedy stated, show the power of representation in spreading joy during the holiday season.

“When a little child [or an 80-year old kid] is so happy to see somebody that looks like them, and then it’s in the jolliest character that there could possibly be,” said Kennedy, “the feeling is indescribable.”

Despite the racism and hate that prompted Kennedy’s journey as a Black Santa, he remains committed to spreading joy and representation during the holiday season.

And his neighbors continue to follow suit as they continue to put up their inflatable Black Santas two years later in solidarity with the Kennedy’s.

“I think it’s great that people are following through and still amplifying the message that Santa is for all people,” he said. “Santa can be anyone who wants to be Santa, it doesn’t matter your race, religion, or sexual orientation, it doesn’t matter.”