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Shoppers head over to Soul Santa

Christopher Cardwell poses with Soul Santa in this provided photo
Christopher Cardwell/ provided photo
Christopher Cardwell poses with Soul Santa in this provided photo

Local families have just a few more days to take portraits with Soul Santa. The African-American Santa Claus is based in Villa, an urban clothing boutique in Greece Ridge Mall. It’s the second year, Christopher Cardwell of Goodknews Photography has organized the event.

He offers families an alternative from the traditional Mall Santa Claus located near the food court and says the event has widespread support among children.

“One thing about Santa Claus is, with kids they don’t really see skin color too much,” he said. “As the kids are passing by they see Santa Claus from the window in Villa. And all, all kids run up to the window.”

He said families of all backgrounds have made their way into Villa to talk to Soul Santa and tell him what they want for Christmas this year.

The man behind that bushy white beard? Henry Phelps Jr. who is better known as "Big Hank." He’s been playing Santa for over a decade. He’s done it at the Boys & Girls club, Cardwell’s studio and now, for the last two years, Villa.

“There’s nothing like seeing the kids in my community smile during the holiday season,” said Phelps. “I have been doing this for so long because I enjoy the opportunity to bring a smile to the many faces that are probably facing many obstacles.”

He added that he enjoys seeing children of all backgrounds light up when they see him and after over a decade playing the role, he has made his belly shake and deep laugh more convincing.

“We’ve had…we got a good amount of support from both black, white and Hispanic families so that’s pretty amazing,” said Cardwell. And he said it’s not just about children; Soul Santa helps parents of color by giving their children an idol who more closely resembles them.

“There’s something about the symbolism behind having an African American Santa Claus represent the man making contributions to their homes and communities of color throughout the nation,” said Cardwell. “Soul Santa provides children and families of color a chance to see a symbol of hope that actually looks like them and is as realistic as possible.”

Currently, Greece Ridge Mall has no plans to incorporate an African-American in the larger mall setting, according to the Mall’s Director of Marketing and Public Relations Melanie Fazio.

“It’s kind of their event,” she said, of Villa and Cardwell. “Villa was the one that brought it to the mall so we embraced it as their event. So, we have them host it and there’s a phenomenal turnout both years. We don’t want to step on their toes.”

And the event has only gotten larger this year. She says she’s seen more people come out to the event this year, though Cardwell has largely relied on grassroots ways of getting the word out.

“I think the second year was a bigger turnout just because you know as annual event, this year I guess has a little more legs to it. The more the word gets out, the better annual events get,” Fazio said.