Dec 242013
 
Seventh Ward Santa with Akhil Isiah Ricco-Thompson on Dec. 23, 2013. (submitted photo)

Seventh Ward Santa with Akhil Isiah Ricco-Thompson on Dec. 23, 2013. (submitted photo)

jewel bush

It’s the weekend before Christmas at Dennis Photography, a quaint picture studio. It’s the calm before the storm, a studio attendant explains, before the gallery is packed with crying babies, active toddlers and parents filling out picture packets on one of the busiest Santa Claus picture-taking days of the season.

Seventh Ward Santa, as he has grown to be known in his 43 years, is nowhere in sight. According to his business agent, Fred Parker, Santa is in between photo shoots as is typical during this time of year working to make as many appearances and greet as many little ones as possible. He’s been on call since Nov. 1 visiting multiple New Orleans daycare centers, elementary schools and high schools daily in addition to his regular sittings at the studio.

“I’m dog-tired. I can’t sleep. I’m up at 5 and then up until 12 and 1 at night,” Seventh Ward Santa said. “I’m looking forward to Christmas Day so I can get to sleep.”

Everyone in New Orleans knows the real Santa Claus is a Black man and he can be found at the corner of St. Bernard Avenue and North Tonti Street. If you grew up here, there’s a fine chance that you’ve taken pictures with him – more than once. He’s visited just about every school around town.

While there is a crew of Black Santas that work the circuit, everyone knows the No. 1 Santa, the real Black Santa. Everyone knows his face. He is by far the most requested.

Santa is so embedded into the New Orleans community that children and adults, for that matter, approach him year round. Many remember him from his 31 years as an Orleans Parish School Bus Driver, who on the last day of school would treat his passengers to lunch at McDonald’s; a true gift to his students.

Local educator and author, Mary Webb, grew up taking pictures with him, which is why she was disappointed this December when her daughter, Jory brought home the Santa pictures she had taken at school. Webb saw the pictures and said, “Who is this? This isn’t the real Santa.”

Taking pictures with this Santa is a New Orleans rite of passage. He’s a multi-generational cultural marker of all that is right with our city. He’s the bright spot in New Orleans schools, a positive tradition — one of few – that has survived Hurricane Katrina. He’s proof that Santa should look like you. I had my picture taken with him as a teenager and my son had his taken with him too.

“From ages 3-14, I’ve always taken pictures with the Black Santa,” said Jessica Saizan, 28, who now lives in Houston, Texas. “I thought he was the real Santa. He knew where I lived. He came to every school I ever attended to take pictures with me — Clara’s Little Lambs, Adolph Meyer (now Harriet Tubman) and St. Mary’s Academy. I mean the beard was legit, the weight, his smile was handsome and his spirit seemed so warm.”

Today, Santa enjoys a certain amount of cache and celebrity status here in New Orleans. This wasn’t always the case. As the conversation of Kris Kringle often turns to race, Seventh Ward Santa shared that in the beginning, sadly enough Black people were not looking for a Black Santa Claus. As a kid, he admitted that the vision of white Santa was all he knew too.

“I struggled for 5 years and almost quit doing this,” he explained, “but when I got with Dennis this really blossomed. We’ve been rolling ever since. I think people need to forget color and remember the season. Santa and the spirit of Christmas is coming from the heart.”

Seventh Ward Santa is pure magic. He must be sipping from the fountain of youth because he hasn’t aged in 20 years in his career that spans four decades. He’s sat with generations and recognizes just as many folks who recognize him.

“I didn’t put myself in this position. God did, and I’m going to use this as long as I can.”

Kia Hatfield Robinson, 1985

Kia Robinson Hatfield, 1985

Keith Mack and Dominique Harris, 1989

Keith Mack and Dominique Harris, 1989

Danielle Houston and Jessica Saizan, 1988

Danielle (Saizan) Houston and Jessica Saizan, 1988

Danielle Houston Saizan and Jessica Saizan, 1995

Danielle (Saizan) Houston and Jessica Saizan, 1995

Danielle Saizan Houston, 1996

Danielle (Saizan) Houston, 1996

Dakia Bell Turner, 1989

Dakia Turner-Bell, 1989

Doreen Owens-Saizan, 1990

Doreen Owens-Saizan, 1990

Aaron Bryant, 1991

Aaron Bryant, 1991

Mary Webb, Marian Webb, and Telesha Welsh, 1991

Mary Webb, Marian Webb, and Telesha Welsh, 1991

Erin Harris, 1993

Erin Harris, 1993

jewel bush and Ebony Hamilton, 1995

jewel bush and Ebony Hamilton, 1995

Shantrelle Lewis and Miguel Lewis Ridgley, 1995

Shantrelle Lewis and Miguel (Ridgley) Lewis, 1995

Back row: Renita Woolridge, Toya Singleton, Brandy Breaux , Allison LaCour. Front row: Angel Calhoun, Jonalyn turner, Leslie Martin

Back row: Renita Woolridge, Toya Singleton, Brandy Breaux, Allison LaCour. Front row: Angel Calhoun, Jonalyn Turner, Leslie Martin. 1996.

Trishlynn Ragas, 2002

Trishlynn Ragas, 2002

Trishlynn Ragas, 2012

Trishlynn Ragas, 2012

Gwen Reese, 2002

Gwen Reese, 2002

Kristopher Cole 2004

Kristopher Cole, 2004

Quentin Murray, 2005

Quentin Murray, 2005

Amir-Saffiyah, 2006

Amir-Saffiyah, 2006

Launnie Galmore, 2012

Launnie Galmore, 2012

Rhiley and Reagan Alexander, November 2013

Rhiley and Reagan Alexander, November 2013

Rashad, Bridget, Rhiley and Reagan Alexander, Nov 30, 2013.

Rashad, Bridget, Rhiley and Reagan Alexander, Nov 30, 2013.

Payton and Cameron Rogers  December 22, 2013

Payton and Cameron Rogers, December 22, 2013

Akhil Isiah Ricco-Thompson, Dec. 23 2013

Akhil Isiah Ricco-Thompson, Dec. 23, 2013.



jewel bush, a New Orleans native, is a writer whose work has appeared in The (Houma) Courier, The Washington Post, The Times-Picayune, New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles Magazine, and El Tiempo, a bilingual Spanish newspaper. In 2010, she founded MelaNated Writers Collective, a multi-genre group for writers of color in New Orleans dedicated to cultivating the literary, artistic and professional growth of emerging writers. Her three favorite books are Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Catcher in the Rye, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

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  • Tracy Ragas

    Love it and the pics show how long he has been around

  • disqus_RXOXxssnM9

    Thank you for this story. I have always wondered about Santa. I never had the opportunity to take pictures with him but he is the symbol of Christmas.

  • pfvayda

    Lovely story, Jewel. Good reporting. Excellent writing. Merry Christmas to all of us!

  • Sylvia Lazard

    These photo’s brought back so many fond memories. Every Christmas Eve we had a party for my daughter from age 2 until she was 6 years old along with her friends and all the kids in our family. All the parents brought one gift that their kids really wanted and left them outside on the porch. When Santa arrived he put them in his sack walked into the house with a great big HO HO HO. The kids went crazy with excitement. He sat down in front of the Christmas Tree and began to distribute the gifts calling the kids names, sitting them on his lap and talking to each one. As they opened their gifts it was amazing, they were so shocked they were over heard saying “Santa brought me just what I wished for”. Because of Katrina we no longer have any of the photo’s but the memories live on in our heart and minds.
    THANK YOU FRED FOR BRINGING SUCH JOY INTO OUR LIVES
    GOD GAVE US THE REAL SANTA AND THAT IS YOU.
    Sylvia, Harold & Seivauje

  • Jen L

    When I was little (in the early 70s) , I knew there were black Santas and there were white Santas and really since he’s magic why can’t he be both. I just figured Santa based his color on your household because I was very logical at age 5. Great story