Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Shawn Vestal: A Peaceful Valley man is transforming himself into Black Santa after suffering a devastating loss this year – ‘We’ve got a little extra love to give’

Jerry Lancaster will be Black Santa for two Christmas events at Wishing Tree Books in the Perry District. Jerry and his partner, Maddy Woodward, recently lost a child late in her pregnancy. He volunteered to be Santa in part because they had extra love to give after losing their child. He is photographed at his home in Spokane on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

Jerry Lancaster has been preparing diligently for his starring role.

He got the hat, and the rest of the costume is coming. He’s working on the voice and the laugh, and thinking over what holiday songs he might sing. A sign on the front door of his Peaceful Valley home reads: “North Pole.”

“I’m really excited about it,” he said, talking with his partner, Maddy Woodward, about his upcoming performance as Santa Claus. “We love Christmas. We’re relatively jolly people, under regular circumstances.”

When Lancaster becomes Saint Nick on the next two Saturdays, however, the circumstances won’t be regular. For one thing, Lancaster will be Black Santa – a rarity in Spokane that organizers see as important in terms of representation and inclusion for children of color. He’ll be appearing at Wishing Tree Books on Saturday and Dec. 9.

And for another, Lancaster and Woodward have been grieving a serious loss – the recent stillbirth of their son, Story.

“I feel like this is a good year to do it,” Lancaster said. “We’ve got a little extra love to give.”

‘Way overdue’

Growing up in Indianapolis, Lancaster – whose mother was Italian and father had African American and Native American heritage – never saw a Santa who looked like him.

He has that in common with Erika Ellis’ 7-year-old son, Kai. Ellis has been seeking a Black Santa for Kai to visit without success; she wants him to have the experience of seeing himself reflected in a key figure of Christmas. She didn’t find anything close to home – or far away.

“Last year, I looked everywhere across the state and there wasn’t much,” she said.

Ellis and her husband, Scott, have four children; three are white, like themselves, and Kai is Black. It has become part of their family holiday tradition that Santa Claus is Black.

“It’s just our belief that the real Santa is Black,” she said. “All of my kids believe it.”

After trying without success to arrange a Black Santa event elsewhere in town, Ellis contacted Janelle Smith, the owner of Wishing Tree, who was eager to offer a home for the event.

“I just think that it is way overdue,” Smith said. “We were super-excited because it goes along with our mission of diversity and honoring everybody.”

Finding the right Santa was the next step. Ellis, a pediatric physical therapist, knows Lancaster and Woodward because their 3-year-old son attends the same preschool as hers. But she also knew about their loss, so she presumed that it wouldn’t be the best time to ask him. But when Maddy heard about what was being planned, she volunteered to ask Lancaster to do it.

Their son had been born without a heartbeat on Oct. 7. Lancaster said that for about a month afterward, “I was in no man’s land, just trying to negotiate life and still be a partner and father.”

But they both love children – he is a musician, who performs solo and with a band around town several nights a week, and she is a social worker who works with foster children – and their 3-year-old son, Atlas, is in the first year of hyper-awareness about Santa Claus and the spirit of Christmas.

They wanted to do something in memory of the son they lost, as well.

“We wanted to do something to honor him,” Woodward said. “You can either let the darkness override everything or you can let the light that he is and he was guide you, and I think that’s best for the holiday season.”

‘Oh, this is cool’

It may seem – if you tune in to the culture-war chatter in which the idea of Black Santa is framed as a recent expression of “wokism” – that this is a new idea. But there is a long and complicated history associated with Black Santa in America, one that has evolved over time and one that has deep roots in many African American families.

At one stage, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was a part of racist minstrelsy, with black-face Santas played for mocking laughter to white audiences. Later in the 20th century, African Americans took up Black Santa for themselves, with educators and civil rights activists adopting the idea as a way of “elevating Black self-esteem and countering racist versions of the character,” according to an article published earlier this month in the journal Comparative American Studies, “Searching for Black Santa: The Contested History of an American Holiday Tradition.”

The figure of Black Santa – sometimes accompanied by a white backlash – also had civil-rights and Black Power iterations.

“The modern Black Santa works to reconcile the more confrontational politics of earlier iterations, with a celebration of American multiculturalism and corporate responsibility,” the author, E. James West, wrote.

A decade ago, journalist Aisha Harris wrote a piece for Slate magazine about experiencing two Santas during her childhood: the white Santa depicted everywhere in mainstream culture, and the Black Santa on Christmas cards and decorations she saw in her home. That piece prompted a backlash when it was taken up as a Fox News cudgel in the so-called War on Christmas – with one commenter dismissing the idea and declaring: “Santa just is white.”

This backlash was not so new. Archie Bunker, the bigoted – yet beloved – patriarch on the 1970s sitcom “All in the Family,” once declared to a Black Santa: “The fact is, Jesus was white and so was Santa Claus.”

More recently, as issues surrounding racial justice and diversity rose to the fore, efforts to bring Black Santa more prominently into mainstream culture have become more common and less contested. But before now, they’ve been rare in Spokane – or at least very quiet and small, said Kurtis Robinson, president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP and executive director of Revive Center for Returning Citizens and I Did the Time.

When he was younger and living in New York City and Southern California, Robinson did encounter Black Santas on more than one occasion. He said it’s important for kids of color to see themselves in the holiday, to counteract their experience of living in a world where white people are often the only figures of admiration or cultural importance.

“I remember seeing a Black Santa as a kid, and I remember how much it stood out to me,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is cool.’ ”

‘A responsibility

to kids’

It was a Christmas gift that brought Lancaster and Woodward to Spokane in 2019. Both are natives of Indianapolis, and Woodward had given Lancaster a gift of a trip to Spokane to see a band he loved, Young the Giant.

At that time, they were considering moving to a new city and hadn’t decided on where.

“We had a list of cities, and Spokane was not on that list,” Lancaster said. “But after coming here and spending a week, we were infatuated with it.”

They moved here, began pursuing their careers and started a family. Lancaster began performing regularly around town – playing covers and originals, and lending everything he plays his own style of “funky soul rock.”

As his time in the Santa suit approaches, Lancaster has been giving it a lot of thought. He understands how important Santa is for children and wants to get it right. The event at Wishing Tree will include stories and music; he’ll be taking his guitar and playing Christmas songs.

“I’ve thought a lot about it, honestly,” he said. “I feel more pressure being Santa than I do being on stage in front of hundreds of people. You put on a Santa costume, and you have a responsibility to the kids.”

Editor’s note: The “If You Go” box accompanying this story has been updated to correct the ending time for the event.