Kevin Nolan first donned a red Santa suit eight years ago to take photos at his daughter’s preschool with her classmates. He had gone to Walmart, picked up a Santa suit and his beard was still black. After he had taken a few pictures with the kids, his phone started ringing. Parents were calling, saying you don’t often see a Santa of color – and he realized they were right.
Nolan now has a professional red suit, complete with jingle bells and a smile only the real Santa Claus could compete with. He travels around the St. Louis area, booking events and other visits as Cocoa Santa – a Santa with a “slightly darker hue,” he describes on his website.
Each holiday season, Nolan takes a break from his job at the Metropolitan Sewer District in St. Louis to spread cheer.
“It feels good to show representation matters. I’m out there for all that want to come,” Nolan tells the RFT
. “I like to see the smiles of the small kids and big kids. Sometimes, the adults are even more giddy than the children are. It’s absolutely wonderful to be that person to bring that smile to everyone.”
Cocoa Santa frequently gets told “I didn’t know Santa was Black” by children – something Nolan chalks up to children famously lacking a filter – and he explains to them that Santa comes in all different colors and sizes, and says he thinks it’s important to have this appearance this year. He’ll ask the child if that’s okay, and then he says the conversation usually flows from there. Typical wish lists ensue, as well as just general discussion of things they want Santa to know.
Listening is a key skill when it comes to being Santa, Nolan says, something taught to him in Santa School (yes, it’s real.) He makes sure to hear what the children are saying, as well as what they’re not saying, and watches for different cues. Santa School taught him to interact with small and large crowds, as well as be an effective storyteller. He also thinks the little details are just as important as the big ones.
These skills come into play with one of Nolan’s favorite memories as Cocoa Santa. Last year, Cocoa Santa offered Zoom calls and parents had arranged for their daughter Jessica to speak to him. Prior to the call, Nolan asked her parents for facts about their child, as he does with every kid, and they had told him about Jessica’s Elf on the Shelf, Timmy. When Cocoa Santa asked Jessica how Timmy was doing, she was stunned. After the call, Jessica’s mom sent Nolan a video of the little girl informing her grandma that she talked to the real
Santa because he knew about Timmy. All the small details “make a real difference,” Nolan says.
Nolan's family has also joined in on the fun: His wife, Gloria, doubles as Mrs. Claus and his children serve as elves that get to pass out candy canes and attend events with him.
“My wife saw pictures online, and she said, ‘Wow, you enjoy doing that!’ and I would say, 'Yes, you should try it!’” Nolan recalls. “Eventually I got her out there to try. She went to an event and she said, ‘You know what, I understand. I understand why you do this. It's a good feeling to see all the smiles and positive energy.' It’s a family ordeal now.”
Cocoa Santa has made a list and checked it twice for his upcoming events this week. He’ll be at Field Foods (1500 Lafayette Avenue)
on December 15 from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Mrs. Claus will join him at Magic House MADE (5127 Delmar Boulevard)
from 5 to 7 p.m. on December 17 and at the Bellefontaine Recreation Center (9669 Bellefontaine Road)
from 7 to 9 p.m. on December 18. He also visits the Saint Louis Galleria (1155 Galleria)
twice a week: He’ll be there on December 19 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and December 20 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
When asked what he enjoys about the holiday season as Cocoa Santa, Nolan knew the answer right away.
“As Santa, I still am able to bring smiles and delight to newcomers. I’ve been doing this for eight years and I’m still getting a lot of positive exposure,” he says. “It’s a good feeling to just see someone smile a genuine smile, no cause, no effort, that’s a good feeling for Cocoa Santa to get that from people.”
You can also catch Cocoa Santa riding around on his sleigh – a red Jeep decked out with holiday lights – around the St. Louis area. He also has a Facebook page
that he lists where he’ll be visiting that week.
Follow Jenna on Twitter at @writesjenna. Email the author at [email protected]
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