How ‘Chocolate Santa’ brought joy to New Orleans again after tragedy

Sunday - 25/12/2022 22:43 Author: Editors Desk Source: The Guardian
When the original Santa for the majority-Black Seventh Ward died, a new one stepped into his boots, inspired by his memory
Families came from out of state to take photos is Theron Murphy’s Santa. Photograph: Leslie Gamboni/The Guardian
Families came from out of state to take photos is Theron Murphy’s Santa. Photograph: Leslie Gamboni/The Guardian

For Theron Murphy, the only thing cooler than taking pictures as a child with a Santa Claus who – like him – was Black was eventually getting the jolly guy’s blessing to carry on his spirit. Murphy, 33, was among the generations of children taken by their parents to Dennis Photofinish studio at the corner of St Bernard Avenue and North Tonti Street in New Orleans’s majority-Black Seventh Ward neighborhood to have their portrait taken with the man countless folks in the city simply knew affectionately by his preferred nickname: “Chocolate Santa”.

Chocolate Santa for most of the year was school bus driver Fred Parker. But when the holidays rolled around, Parker transformed into Chocolate – or Seventh Ward – Santa, complete with the traditional red suit and hat. He sat patiently listening to wishes for toys and other Christmas miracles at the portrait studio or at the schools, daycares, hospitals, markets and malls he visited during “the most wonderful time of the year” for nearly five decades.

“The word ‘representation’ comes to mind,” Murphy said about Parker, who cemented his legend at a time when everything from movies and TV shows to Christmas cards depicted Santa as being white. “It was kind of a magical thing. To see, you know, an older Black guy with a real Santa-like, Santa-esque quality, that was just a beautiful thing.”

Yet if there’s anything permanent in New Orleans, whose Black residents for generations have died at disproportionate rates as a result of violence, potent hurricanes afflicting less-protected, poorer neighborhoods or endemic health crises, it’s loss. For Parker, what some feared was the beginning of the end arrived in 2019, after his physical health took a downturn, and he canceled all of his holiday engagements that year.

Fred Parker died aged 78 by August of the following year, marked eternally by the pandemic, though he did not die from the coronavirus. The luckier of those who grieved him could preserve memories by displaying the Christmas portraits they had taken with him. But some, like Murphy, had lost their portraits after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, when the federal levees failed, leaving more than 1,000 people dead and causing tens of billions of dollars in property damage.

So Murphy found another, bigger, better way. With the help of a longtime friend and local photographer, he ended up becoming the successor to Parker.

Sade Benson places children around Theron Murphy as Santa. Photograph: Leslie Gamboni/The Guardian
Sade Benson places children around Theron Murphy as Santa.Photograph: Leslie Gamboni/The Guardian

Murphy’s origin story as the second Chocolate Santa, with Parker’s stamp of approval, has its nuances.

Murphy had always loved Christmas, especially as a distraction from the street violence that blighted his city.

Photos as a kid with Santa – the real one, who lived in the Seventh Ward, not the North Pole, as he saw it – were just one element of that magic. Murphy remembers marveling even as a youngster that some of the children waiting to get their portraits taken with Chocolate Santa had come from out of state.

“People lined up outside [the studio] to see him,” Murphy recalled. “It was just amazing to see.”

After graduating from New Orleans’s Tulane University, he was teaching local schoolchildren when a friend asked Murphy if he would dress up as Santa for their students.

All Murphy really wore for his first Santa outing in 2016 was the standard red suit. The beard would be fashioned out of paper, an indignity that he says he endured because the aim was to bring smiles to the hearts of kindergarteners.

“It’s not like Beyoncé and Halle Berry were going to be there,” said Murphy, a drummer on New Orleans’s busy music scene, invoking the names of the two women whom embarrassing himself in front of would be impossible to recover from. “So I did it.”

He was convincing enough that the school had him reprise his role the following year. He improved his look by growing a beard and mustache that he highlighted with white Crayola paint.

The year after that, in 2018, a photo of Murphy in his Santa get-up caught the attention of his friend, photographer Sade Benson.

Benson and Murphy had once worked together and during Katrina she, too, lost the photos she and her siblings took with Seventh Ward Santa.

She called Murphy to catch up and eventually suggested that she snap portraits of children with Murphy as Santa – kind of like the ones they once sat for with Mr Fred.

“We just kind of brainstormed literally from that one conversation,” Benson said. “And it went from there.”

Then more paths crossed.

Parker’s dip in health in 2019 prompted him to cancel his obligations for that Christmas season.

When reports emerged that Chocolate Santa was too sick to work, there were hopes someone else could step in. Murphy diplomatically contacted Parker and asked for his blessing to fill his VIP boots.

It was not an easy decision to relinquish his role, Parker’s daughter, Linitta Williams, recalled.

“My dad loved the holidays and bringing this aspect of joy to children,” she said. And yet, she added: “He saw that it meant so much to a child to tell Santa what they wanted for Christmas.”

Murphy recalled Parker telling him: “Young man, by all means, please do it.” That was Parker’s last Christmas.

The significance of Parker’s verbal support beyond Murphy’s peace of mind can’t be measured. But one recent weekend, more than 60 families had signed up their children to have their photos taken with Chocolate Santanow played by Murphy, at Benson’s Krowned Photography studio in a New Orleans suburb.

Some families arriving at Krowned came from Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and other states, just as they had in Parker’s day. 

In Chocolate Santa form, Murphy sat in a sleigh with a backdrop depicting a toy store, while tunes like the Temptations’ version of Silent Night and Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You blared over speakers.

As he placed a little boy onto his lap, Murphy joked with him in a deep, jolly voice.

Sade Benson and Theron Murphy. Photograph: Leslie Gamboni/The Guardian
Sade Benson and Theron Murphy. Photograph: Leslie Gamboni/The Guardian

Five children between the ages of two and nine then scampered into the studio and surrounded Murphy. One boy asked for a motorcycle for Christmas. A girl asked for the newest iPhone.

Murphy finds less material wishes more memorable, however.

“One kid said: ‘I want all my family to come and see me for Christmas.’ I thought that was special. Pretty mature,” he said.

LaTonya Gibson had brought the children who inspired that reflection from Murphy: her youngest daughter and four grandchildren. 

Gibson almost hadn’t made the trip. Her sister lives nearly an hour away and was battling cancer, and Gibson had driven her home after a discharge from a hospital visit late the previous night.

But then she said she remembered how excited her older daughter had been to meet Parker’s original Chocolate Santa at her daycare in her youth. And while her youngest daughter, Leah, nine, had just gotten photos with Santa at her Catholic school, that Santa was white.

So Gibson took the kids to Murphy, not only because supporting representation is important to her but also because they deserved to savor the magic, preserved in memory of Parker.

“We just needed that positivity,” Gibson said. “We needed, I guess, the innocence of it.”

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