How Black Santa helped me believe again

I don’t remember ever believing in Santa. My earliest memory of the subject is at age six when I asked my mother if I could have a bike for christmas. She told me it was too expensive.

“But I thought Santa took care of that?”

“He does,” she said after a pause. “But he can’t work for free. He costs money.”

It was a moment of quick thinking, the deft merging of reality and fantasy that is a hallmark of single mothers the world over. But it revealed the truth. “Not enough money” was something my mother always said. Santa held no such limitations. Santa didn’t say “no.”

If I ever did believe before, I stopped believing then.

A 62-year-old man is driving in Oakland with his wife. He is black. It is a sunny day. He wears shorts and a tie-dyed t-shirt with the words “Children’s Fairyland” across the front. Children’s Fairyland is a fairy tale theme park in the middle of the city. For over 60 years, parents have taken their small ones there to experience what remains of magic and wonder in this world.

A melee catches his eye: A group of teens is beating down another on the sidewalk in broad daylight. No one else wants to get involved. But this guy has made a career of helping others in need. He heads an agency that creates safe meetings between children and parents after violence, abuse, divorce. He helped found the Berkeley Free Clinic. He sits on the board of the Alameda County Fair. He also used to be an EMT.

So when he sees this violence, he does what no one else is doing. He stops the car. He and his wife rush over and break it up. The offenders scatter, and he begins tending to the victims’ injuries. Oakland Police Department arrives having received a disturbance call. The man explains what happened, and describes the car the kids fled in. But the white officer doesn’t believe him and becomes aggressive and accusatory—treats him as a suspect, threatens him with arrest. He is wearing glasses and a shirt advertising a fairy tale amusement park. But still his skin is black. And for that officer on that day, that means it is far more likely that this man is a criminal than a Good Samaritan.

What the officer doesn’t know, however, is that Ron Zeno, the 62-year old black man of whom he is suspicious, is Santa Claus.

“My office was right across the street from Fairyland,” Zeno says, telling me the story of how he became Santa. “Having all these families coming to me, part of it was teaching them how to become a family again… we’d go to Fairyland a lot. It’s a positive thing at Fairyland because you can let the kids play. Teaching the parents how to sit back and let the kids lead them around. Letting the kids do what they want to do, versus, you know, ‘You do this,’ ‘Do that.’”

Fairyland executives noticed that Zeno was paying admission for himself and different families frequently, so they offered free admission for his non-profit and its clients.

Zeno took them up on this and became a friend of the park in the process. But that changed when, in Zeno’s words “…their Santa left for some reason. They asked me if I would step in. So being the big fool that I am, the person who can’t say no, I stepped in on a volunteer basis.” He laughs gently at himself. “And I’ve been doing it ever since.”

There are very few Black Santas in America. The vast majority of children learn that the face of generosity, kindness, and unconditional love and respect for children is a white one. And that it absolutely has to be.

This makes Zeno’s 18-year turn as an insanely popular Santa to children of all races even more remarkable. I ask him how children react.

“It’s pretty rare that children bring that up,” he says. “You know I have some white kids that call me a chocolate Santa. Occasionally a black kid will ask if I’m the real Santa… and I tell them that there are Santas all over the world making Christmas happen for a lot of people. And I’m one of them.”

Ron Zeno is the kind of loving and active member of the community whom we are seeing less of these days. 2014 has been a hard year for those of us who want desperately to believe in that kind of love. The unprosecuted murders of countless unarmed black and brown citizens have made it difficult to feel anything other than desperate anger, even at the holidays.

I ask Ron, whose community activism dates back to the 1970s, how these recent events make him feel.

“I’m enraged about it. I’m totally pissed about it. But I’ve got to figure out what I can do to help the problem. I feel that something’s got to be done rather than sitting around being angry or marching in the streets, which I think is very important. But something else has to be done. So I was asked to sit on a board that interviews people who want to be police officers. And…now that I am retired I have more time to do that. It’s a small thing. But I believe it is a contribution.”

It occurs to me that Zeno’s entire life is just that. Small things that are a contribution. His community work, his professional work, even his family home in East Oakland, which he opened to all the neighborhood kids, speaks to a man whose guiding philosophy is “you’ve got to do something.”

All those kids Ron and his wife cared for are grown now. And he has been playing the role of Santa to thousands of others throughout the month of December for close to two decades.

Zeno goes on to reflect on children he remembers.

“There was a little white girl who came up. And she asked me for peace. She was tired of everything that was happening. Especially to black men. She asked me to make it stop. I told her I would try… but I would need a lot of help.”

This idea, that Santa needs help, is entirely new to me. And hearing it makes me realize why the traditional Santa story never made sense in the first place. We are taught that Santa simply grants wishes. Our only job was to “be good” and we would get what we wanted. This strikes me now as a remarkably privileged world view. One that suggests that simply having a pleasant personality will make things go your way.

But what we wanted was freedom from racism, poverty, violence. We wanted safety. We wanted to thrive in a world that seemed to want us to die. These are not things that come from “being good.” Real life taught us that being good guaranteed very little and that nothing worthwhile came of wishing. The world we wanted was something that we’d have to build together.

And when Ron Zeno tells children that he’ll need a lot of help from them, that’s exactly what Santa is preaching.

Maybe that’s why it’s important to have a black Santa.

After we talk, I find myself sitting quietly at my desk thinking about our conversation. And it occurs to me that I believe in Santa Claus now, in this moment, more than I ever did as a kid.

Follow Carvell on Twitter@carvellwallace. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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