When Leroy Barber talks about spending the holidays in a bubble, he's not referring to the metaphorical bubble we're now all familiar with.
No, he means a literal plastic bubble—specifically, a 10-foot-tall, 10-foot-wide inflatable snow globe.
It's the best way he could think of to preserve a tradition that, in his view, holds more significance than simply marking the season. Every year, Barber, 53, assumes the role of Black Santa—that is, the same holly-jolly reindeer whisperer seen on Coke cans and at shopping malls every December, except, well, he's Black. He dons the classic red suit, white beard and stocking cap, and takes a seat in a prefabricated living room at the United Methodist Church in Northeast Portland, where he works as director of innovation. Hundreds of kids line up to crawl into his lap, and hundreds of parents tell him how important it is for their children to see a vision of Old Saint Nick that looks like them.
That can't happen this year, at least not how it's happened in the past. And so: the snow globe.
An associate found it on Amazon, retailing for $1,100. A crowdfunding campaign helped buy it. Now, it sits in Barber's house, waiting to be deployed.
"I blew it up in my living room," he says. "It definitely works."
The plan is to inflate it in the parking lot of Tabor Heights United Methodist Church and allow families to drive up, one car at a time, to take photos from a pandemic-safe distance. He's also going to throw it in the back of a pickup with a generator for a parade through Southeast Portland.
Barber chuckles at the idea: Santa living inside a bubble, just like the rest of us this year. But he wasn't just going to cancel the event. He's not the first Black Santa, of course, but in Portland, he's one of few. And he knows firsthand how much representation matters—even in the realm of mythical figures.
"When a person sees themselves in something they admire, it helps their overall thought about themselves," he says. "It can be, 'I am OK. I am worth receiving a gift.' It goes a long way."
Growing up in Philadelphia, the only image of Santa Claus that Barber ever saw himself was of an old white man. He started dressing up as Santa when he lived in Atlanta, long enough ago that many of the kids he took photos with have children of their own now. He relocated to Portland in 2012 to take a job at a Christian anti-poverty nonprofit, eventually co-founding his own organization, the Voices Project, which helps train and support community leaders of color.
After coming into his current position with the United Methodists four years ago, Barber decided to bring the Santa suit out of the closet, in a city with much different racial demographics than where he started. He'd heard about the history of gentrification in Northeast Portland and figured that'd be the ideal place for Black Santa to put down roots.
The first year brought out about 100 people. It now regularly attracts around 500.
"Even though many of those folks don't live there anymore, they have a connection with that area," he says. "It touched a chord for people."
It's proven so popular, Barber recently loaded his snow globe into an RV and drove to Boise for event there.
The world being what it is, Barber has received complaints about Black Santa, probably from the same people who insist Idris Elba can't play James Bond and the Tooth Fairy must be of European descent. "Santa is white. Get over it," read one message.
But those are rare. More often, the response is gratitude—and not just from the little ones.
"It's for kids, but I think we're doing something for parents, too," he says. "Something in them is fulfilled by having their kids do this."
GO: Black Santa Wonderland is at Tabor Heights Methodist Church, 6161 SE Stark St. 3-9 pm Saturday-Sunday, Dec. 19-20. The Black Santa Parade takes place 1:45-3 pm Saturday, Dec. 12. Check the website blacksantapdx.com for route and to register.
Other Places to See Santa Claus
Mad Greek Deli presents Virtual Chats with Santa
Why exactly is one of Portland's best gyro spots setting up Zoom meetings with Kris Kringle? It's probably best not to ask such questions and just accept an act of seasonal generosity when it comes along, especially this year. A 10-minute session is free, but donations are encouraged—where do you think that signature omega sauce comes from, anyway? It ain't elven magic. Through Dec. 20.
A Christmas Story at Vancouver Mall
8700 NE Vancouver Mall Drive, shopvancouvermall.com.
Across the Columbia, our neighbors to the north have transformed their biggest shopping center into a walkable set themed after one of the low-key weirdest movies to achieve holiday classic status. Will there be a leg lamp? You betcha. Santa will be there as well, but given social distancing requirements, he probably won't be booting anyone down a giant slide. Through Dec. 24.
Santaland at Lloyd Center
2201 Lloyd Center, lloydcenter.com/santalandreservations.
Macy's is closing and the ice rink is shut down, but there's at least one tradition left standing at Portland's most endangered shopping mall. Of course, some alterations are in place this year: Advance reservations are required to meet Santa, and all interactions will take place from a 6-foot distance. Maybe consider writing "PlayStation 5" on a paper airplane or something? Through Dec. 24.
The Cinnamon Bear Holiday Show at Oaks Park
7805 SE Oaks Park Way, oakspark.com.
In Portland, Cinnamon Bear is like the Yuletide version of David S. Pumpkins: an obscure character the city has inexplicably gone all-in on. With his usual venue, the Portland Spirit, docked due to the pandemic, the department store teddy born Paddy O'Cinnamon makes his way to Oaks Park for a drive-in singalong featuring other classic merrymakers as Chipper the Squirrel(?), the Cocklebur Cowboys Band(???) and, in a supporting role, the Big Red Toy Machine himself. Any questions?!? Through Dec. 31.