Larry Jefferson-Gamble's transformation into Santa Claus began when he was just 12 years old. He remembers that Christmas fondly.
It was the year his father hurt his back around the holidays and told him, "I need you to be Santa for me," the Washington Post reported. So little Larry, excited about his new role, went to work gathering all the presents for his 11 siblings and put them under the tree. It was a big moment.
Many years later — 17 of which were spent playing the jolly old man in a big, red suit at the professional level — Larry has taken on the gig of a lifetime.
"Santa Larry" will be the first black Santa at Minnesota's Mall of America, the largest shopping center in the U.S., this holiday season.
For the first time in the mall's 24-year history, one of the jolly men giving out hugs, smiling for photos, and listening to plenty of wish lists from kids won't be white.
The Mall of America isn't the exception, either. At the national scale, Santas of color are "far and few between," according to Larry. And that's a big reason why he does it.
Sarah Schmidt, senior public relations manager at the mall, says slots to sit on Larry's lap at the Santa Experience — where families can schedule an appointment in advance to see St. Nick — are completely booked up throughout the next few days.
For many people, he's more than your average Kris Kringle.
Santa Larry, a U.S. veteran, means something special to a lot of boys and girls out there — and their parents.
Jefferson says he's talked to families who've driven hours just to see him, the Washington Post reports, with one woman telling him that she'd been waiting 25 years to meet a black Santa.
Unfortunately, Santa's skin color still seems to ruffle some people's feathers. An editor at the Star Tribune, for instance, says the paper had to turn off its comments section due to nasty feedback on its article about Santa Larry. And the debate over Santa's race has been known to fire up a few talking heads in the 24-hour cable news world.
To kids, however, Santa Larry's skin color is no big deal.
“What they see most of the time is this red suit and candy,” Larry says. Santa represents "a good spirit. I’m just a messenger to bring hope, love and peace to girls and boys.”
And when they do notice that he doesn't look like most other Santas, it's a good thing, he says.
“There needs to be more Santas of color, because this is America, and kids need to see a Santa that looks like them,” he says. “That helps kids to identify with the love and spirit of the holiday, you know?”