Dressed in a red Santa suit, white beard and rimless glasses balanced on his nose, Langston Patterson sits on a velvet couch and waits for his adoring fans.
Some call first to make sure he will be there. They come from Palmdale, Thousand Oaks and San Bernardino, driving past many shopping malls with Santas, but none that look like him.
For nearly a decade, Patterson has been the main attraction at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza during Christmastime: a rare black Santa Claus in a sea of white ones.
The mall, located in the heart of black Los Angeles, is one of the few in the country with a black Santa Claus. Some say Patterson is the only black shopping-mall Santa Claus in the Los Angeles area.
As visitors approached him on a recent afternoon, it was hard to tell who was more excited: the youngsters or the adults. The parents are the most loyal. They return with grandchildren, passing on a family tradition with a deep personal meaning.
“We need our kids to understand that good things happen in chocolate skin,” said Til Prince, 50, of Palmdale, watching her granddaughter, niece and her niece’s son pose with Patterson. “We are often bombarded with the opposite. We’re not trying to exclude anybody, but [instead] celebrate our chocolate skin.”
Patterson’s place in the Christmas traditions of black families seems only have increased as the African American population of Los Angeles continues to decline amid waves of Latino immigration. The Crenshaw mall now has both a black Santa and a Spanish-speaking Latino Santa, a nod to the demographic shift.
“We make a point to stay in tune with our community,” said Rachel Erickson, the mall’s marketing director.
Perched at his post in the middle of the mall, Patterson greets the eager and the weary. He disarms frightened children with a swift high-five and shares jokes with their parents.
They’ve come to expect him the last two months of every year, seven days a week, four hours a day.
Like many of the children who visit him, he doesn’t believe his skin color makes him different. He’s simply Santa.
“I never even thought about it,” the 77-year-old said. “I’m just giving back and making the kids happy.”
He got the job on a fluke. In 2004, Patterson was sitting in the shopping center’s food court when a mall worker approached him and asked: “How would you like to be Santa?”
Patterson had heard the comparison before. Ever since he stopped shaving and a crop of wiry white hair sprang from his face, people would say he resembled St. Nick.
As Patterson considered whether to take on the role, he recalled the elaborate Christmases his parents created for him and his four siblings in Houston during World War II.
His dad would don a Santa suit and let out a thunderous “Ho! Ho! Ho!” in the middle of the night, to the delight of the children. They would rush downstairs, just in time to see Santa sneak out the door.
“We had beautiful Christmases,” Patterson recalled, smiling at the memory. “My mother didn’t let us know we were poor.”
Although he was initially hesitant, the timing was right. Patterson, a computer technician, retired from the Los Angeles Unified School District years earlier, and he could use the extra cash. Plus, he wanted the diversion. His best friend had just died of cancer. And his two sons lived out of the area.
“I just thought I was getting paid to put on a Santa suit and say ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’” he said. “But then I sat down and saw their reactions. I get a chance to make kids happy.”
Nobody tracks the number of African American Santas nationwide. But Timothy Connaghan, head of the International University of Santa Claus, a Los Angeles-based Santa school, said: “It’s a very lopsided number.”
He keeps a Rolodex of the more than 2,200 Santa Clauses he has trained throughout the country. In the decade since he opened his school, he has had three black pupils.
“Santa is very strongly typecasted because he was born out of Europe and as his story traveled throughout, he was mostly Caucasian,” Connaghan said.
Patterson’s boss, Mac Siu, said he has tried for years to find a backup but has yet to find anybody with Patterson’s charisma, grandfather-like gentleness and Santa features.
On a recent Saturday, 3-year-old Jahleel Logan anxiously walked up to Santa Claus, arm outstretched with a letter in his tiny hand. Santa took the folded paper and lifted his gloved hand. Jahleel gave him a high-five.
As Santa read Jahleel’s wish list — Play-Doh, Lego, Ninja Turtles — the little boy stood calmly.
You’ve been a good boy this year, Santa told Jahleel, reminding him to listen to his mother.
Arlene Graves watched from the sidelines. Seeing her godson with a black Santa meant more to her than to the youngster.
“I just don’t want him to think that all greatness comes from a different race,” said Graves, 45. “There are Santa Clauses his color doing good work, too.”
Tracy Price, 52, was surprised when she spotted a black Santa and rushed over with her 31-year-old daughter, Kelly Ross.
After a few pictures and some lighthearted advice from St. Nick, the two women marveled at seeing a non-white Santa.
“To know we have something that’s positive, wholesome and traditional,” Price said. “This is a Santa that our children can relate to.”