As he walked through the crowd of hundreds of bearded, plump, and jolly white men, Larry Jefferson, a professional Santa Claus, stood out.
It was July, at the annual Santa Claus convention in Branson, Mo., which draws more than 800 Santa Clauses and Mrs. Clauses from across the country.
To Jefferson, of Irving, Texas, the Santas at the convention were just like him - his "brothers in the red suits." But unlike nearly all of others, and contrary to most classic American images of St. Nick, Jefferson is black.
Unbeknownst to him at first, there was a Santa recruiter at the convention looking for someone just like him. A Santa by the name of Sid went to the convention on a mission: find a Santa of color. The organizers of the Santa Experience, which offers photo sessions with Santa in the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., during the holiday season, were hoping to diversify. In its 24 years, the mall had never had a black Santa Claus.
"He said 'hey, if you want to work in Minnesota, we'll treat you nice,'" Jefferson said in an interview with The Washington Post.
On Thursday, Jefferson had his first day of a four-day stint at the Mall of America - marking the mall's first ever black Santa, and providing some Minnesotan families with a holiday experience they felt was long overdue. One woman told Jefferson she had been waiting 25 years to see a black Santa. Other families told him they had driven hours just so their kids could meet him.
"They're far and few between," Jefferson, who is in his mid-50s, said of Santas of color. "That's why I do it."
But when Jefferson first became "Santa Larry" it wasn't only about representing his community. "It was a calling, you know," Jefferson said. Once you're Santa, you're always Santa.
Late Thursday evening, a reporter called a phone number listed for Jefferson's event scheduling, expecting a booking agent or an automated recording. "Hello, this is Santa," the voice on the other end responded, as if it were second nature. After 17 years in the profession, and nearly a lifetime of taking on the role, his deep connection to his red-robed alter-ego is second nature.
Growing up in a family with 11 siblings, Jefferson always loved Christmas, he said. One year, when he was 12 years old, his father's back was hurting, and he didn't feel up to putting the Christmas presents under the tree for the family.
"I need you to be Santa for me," he told his son. Jefferson gladly stepped up. He waited until his siblings were fast asleep before he quietly opened the door and crept out to the car to carry in the Christmas presents.
When his nephews were sick one year around Christmas, he bought a Santa suit and asked a neighbor to drive him across town to surprise them. And when he joined the Army reserves - for which he served as a captain for 30 years - Jefferson became Santa for the troops.
The news of his Mall of America gig - his most high-profile yet - has made him a bit of a celebrity. He's been featured in local and national news outlets, and was invited to speak on the "Steve Harvey" show Friday. He would love to set his sights even further - "I wanna go to the White House!" he declared. But not everyone has been so eager to change the traditional image of Santa Claus. As recently as this year, potential employers have told Jefferson that he wasn't the "particular fit" for them, he said.
"Some companies aren't ready to hire a black Santa or a Hispanic Santa," he said. "Minnesota has jumped to the forefront of a lot of states."
Of course, in many parts of the country, a Santa of color is not as unusual. In Houston, Santa has been seen wearing a zoot suit and dancing to jazz in Mexican-American neighborhoods. On Native American reservations, Santa often adds American Indian attire to his red suit, according to an Associated Press story from 2013.
That same year, a Santa controversy ensued after Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly spoke out during a panel discussion about a Slate article titled, "Santa Claus Should Not Be a White Man Anymore."
"For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white," she said.
"Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn't mean it has to change," Kelly added about the writer's call to make Santa more inclusive. "You know, I mean, Jesus was a white man too."
For some children, it is still a surprise to see a Santa who looks different from the rest, Jefferson said. On Saturday, back in Texas, Jefferson was putting on his coat, about to leave a party at a friend's house, when some kids ran up to him.
"'Santa Claus?'" one of them, a boy who appeared to be about 4 years old, asked, according to Jefferson. "'I didn't know you were brown?'"
"I said, 'yes, I am brown,'" Jefferson told The Post. "'And Santa comes in many different colors.'"
"'Oh,'" the boy said, looking up at him in bewilderment, according to Jefferson.
"It's always so genuine," Jefferson told The Post. "Kids are going to speak their mind at a young age."
But behind the innocent looks of surprise is yet another sign of necessary progress in the country, Jefferson said.
"There need to be more Santas of color, because this is America, and kids need to see a Santa that looks like them," he said. "That helps kids to identify with the love and spirit of the holiday, you know?"
The demand for photos with Jefferson is clearly plentiful; all of his appointments at the Mall of America's Santa Experience this weekend were entirely booked by Thursday.
"It's hilarious to me, I'm really humbled by it," he said, chuckling. "Everyone's making a big deal about this because I'm a black Santa. But gosh, I'm just Santa!"
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Samantha Schmidt