By Clay Eals
PacificNW magazine of The Seattle Times is not running “Now & Then” in the Sunday print editions of Dec. 20 and Dec. 27, 2020.
So as one way to fill the gap for you, our faithful blog subscribers, I offer this “Black Santa” story of mine that appeared Christmas Day 1985 on the front page of the West Seattle Herald, for which I served as editor. The fine photos were by Herald photographer Brad Garrison. This is posted with the permission of Robinson Newspapers.
A couple months ago, thinking this story and photos might make the basis for a “Now & Then” column this month, I tried searching online for Tracy Bennett, the subject of this story, who would be 57 today. Alas, I turned up nothing.
Still, in our coronaviral time of health crisis and social, economic and political upheaval, this 35-year-old story about Tracy and his view on the Santa milieu remains timely, powerful and inspiring — at least that’s my hope.
At the time I wrote it, the story resonated quite personally, From 1985 to 1993, I volunteered more than 100 times to play Santa for children and adults at parties and in schools, community halls and private homes throughout Puget Sound as part of the American Heart Association’s “Santa with a Heart” fundraising program. As any Santa will tell you, it was a uniquely heartwarming and unforgettable experience. (See clippings at bottom.)
Please click any of the images once or twice to enlarge them for easy reading. And if you want to read the transcribed Black Santa text instead of reading directly from the images, scroll down.
Merry merry, and ho, ho, ho!
West Seattle Herald, Dec. 25, 1985
‘Just for you’
Black Santa relishes children’s happiness
Santa Claus, known as Tracy Bennett in the “off”-season, walks into a class of busy fifth- and sixth-graders at Hughes Elementary School in West Seattle.
“Hi, boys and girls,” says Santa.
“Oh, hi Santa Claus!” the students respond, almost in unison.
“That’s good. I thought I’d drop in and visit you for a minute.”
“Yeah,” say a couple of students. “You changed colors.”
“Yeah,” answers Santa, “I sure did, didn’t I?”
By CLAY EALS
When most of those who are opening packages under the Christmas tree this morning think about “the man with all the toys,” their vision probably doesn’t look like Tracy Bennett.
That’s because Bennett is Black, while nearly all of the Santas in the world — at least in the United States — seem to be as white as the North Pole’s year-round snow.
Bennett isn’t bothered, however. He keeps an upbeat, optimistic attitude about the seasonal craft he’s practiced for the past 12 years. He says he’s encountered subtle prejudice from adults and skepticism from kids, but he boasts of being able to win over most of the doubters.
Exposure is what Bennett says he needs most. And so do the other Black Santas in America, he says.
Bennett got some of the exposure he desired last week when he walked the halls of both Hughes and Van Asselt elementary schools, the latter of which is attended by some students who live in southern West Seattle and the city side of White Center.
He roamed the halls at Hughes and, with the assistance of teacher Willa Williams, peeked into classrooms and dropped off sacks of candy canes, occasionally stopping for a few minutes to talk to kids on his lap. Bearing a staccato, smile-inducing “ho, ho, ho,” he almost resembled a politician, repeatedly extending his hand for a shake and greeting children with a steady stream of “Howyadoin’? … Howyadoin’, guy? … Hiya guys. Workin’ hard?”
The racially mixed classes responded in a generally positive way. Although one sixth-grader was heard to say, “I thought Santa Claus was white, because I saw a white Santa Claus at The Bon,” for the most part any negative comments centered on whether he was “real,” not on his skin color.
“He’s nice, but his hair’s made out of cotton. Weird,” said fourth-grader Jessica Canfield. “And he has clothes under his other clothes.”
“He’s fine, and I like him,” said fellow fourth-grader Johnny Cassanova. “He said that he would visit me, and he would try to get everything that I want for Christmas and to get good grades.”
Was he the “real” Santa? “Yeah,” said Johnny, “to me he is.”
“It went real good,” Bennett said afterward. “They were very polite. They weren’t skeptical. Mostly loving, you can tell.”
Bennett, who at 22 is unemployed and intends to go to school so that he can get a job either as a police officer or working with handicapped kids, began his Santa “career” at the young age of 10. “I started as a little dwarf and moved my way up,” the Rainier Valley resident said with a laugh.
Over the years, Bennett said, he’s been Santa at private gatherings and community centers in Seattle’s south end, and he’s pieced together a costume he thinks is unimposing. The key part, he said, is his beard, which is a rather flat affair.
“The big Santa Claus beards and hairs are so flocky, so thick, that it scares some children,” Bennett said. “His color of his suit and his beard is so bright already, along with the brightness of his face.
“A Black Santa Claus with a white beard seems to bring out an older look, and the color of my skin makes it look like a normal Black man wearing a suit.”
Consequently, he said, kids warm up to him rather quickly. “Apparently I work out pretty good,” he said.
Children, both white and minority, raise the racial question fairly often, Bennett said. They usually just say, “Santa Claus is white,” expecting a response, he said.
“But I really don’t say nothing. I just look at ’em and smile, or I say ‘Ho, ho, ho,’ and they usually don’t ask anymore,” he said. “I’m used to it, so it’s no problem.”
Bennett does look forward to a day when more Black Santas are around to break the racial ice at Christmastime.
“I’m not the only one, but I never see ’em in stores,” he said. If just one major downtown store would feature a Black Santa, “that would mean the 12 years that I’ve been working on it has started to come through,” he said. “It would be a breakthrough. I want it to happen.”
He also would like to see children exposed to Santas of a variety of races. “If we bring the children Black Santa Clauses, Korean Santa Clauses, Japanese Santa Clauses, the kids will like it after a while,” he said.
For that to happen, however, some prejudices will have to be broken down gradually. “You can feel it’s there,” he said. “You try to believe it’s not there, but you can see it in people’s eyes.”
Like any Santa Claus, Bennett finds it a “thrill” to portray Saint Nick to children. “When kids are happy, I’m happy. When they’re sad, I feel for ’em. I’d like to give ’em more than I can.”
He insists, however, that it’s important not to insist that he’s the “real” Santa when kids challenge him. He tells children, “You don’t have to believe in me. But I’m doing this just for you.”
“Why ruin a kid’s mind and say, ‘I’m real, believe me’?” he said. “He (Santa) is a beautiful man, OK? No one can take that away from him. But we have to tell what’s real from not. We have to tell our kids we play Santa Claus because we love children.”
Bennett also said it’s important not to push the religious aspects of Christmas as Santa. “When we talk about religion, we have to let kids do what they want, do not force them.”
Williams, the teacher, took the same approach in deciding to invite Bennett, a friend of hers, to visit Hughes. While Christmas “is a fun time and should be a time for joy,” she said she’s well aware of the Seattle School District’s policy that’s intended to separate religion from school activity.
Bringing Santa to the classroom — and a Black Santa at that — was an attempt to get students to “understand each other’s differences,” she said.
“When I told them Santa Claus might visit, one student told me, ‘I don’t believe in Santa Claus.’ Another said, ‘Santa Claus is my mom and dad,’ and another said, ‘Santa Claus is Jesus’,” Williams said. “It was just the idea of general thought and letting them express themselves and learning to accept each and every person and their differences as long as there isn’t any harm.”
For Bennett, the delight of being Santa is that “guy is just a giving person, you know?
“He gives away things to make people happy. If a child’s sick in bed, he sees Santa Claus, he’s going to try to smile as much as he can because he’s happy. When they say, ‘Santa Claus, you didn’t give me so-and-so,’ I say, ‘Well, maybe next year, OK?’
“I don’t tell them I’m going to get this (particular item) for them and get their hopes up. I tell them that maybe somebody will get it for them very soon.
“One guy said he wanted to go to college, and I said, ‘Maybe next Christmas or a few Christmases from now, you’ll be going to college and be saying you got your wish.’ ”
Bennett clearly is hooked on his annual role: “As long as I live and as long as I stay healthy, I’ll always be Santa Claus.”
P.S. Clay as Santa
As promised at the top, here are tidbits from my eight-year volunteer Santa Claus “career” for the American Heart Association: two clippings in which I demonstrate for other Santas the best way to don the uniform, plus a sketch I created to provide step-by-step guidance. Click once or twice on the images to enlarge them. —Clay
Just for fun and to keep with the theme, I also dug up and am including a Santa article I wrote that appeared on Christmas Eve 1980 in the Oregonian near the end of my eight-year stint as a reporter and photographer for that newspaper. Again, click once or twice on the image to enlarge it for easy readability. Enjoy! —Clay