Edward Pruett donned his Santa suit in 1989. "When Black children see a Black Santa, they can relate to it," he says. (Courtesy of Celestine and Kim Pruett)

EDWARD PRUETT HAD WORKED as a skycap with Eastern Air Lines at Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport for years. So when he was asked in 1989 to pilot St. Nick’s sleigh at the Mall West End, it wasn’t a big stretch. Of course, being one of the first Black Santas in an Atlanta mall required more than good navigational skills. This is the story of how a big heart and strategic wardrobe changes were also needed to pull off the magic. It is in his own voice, as told to his nephew, DeMarco Williams

Uneita Ross, my wife Celestine Beverly’s coworker, was in charge of the holiday program down at the West End Mall. She asked me if I wanted to be Santa. I thought about it and said, “Wow, that would be interesting.” I’ve got two children. Adrian was a baby and Kim was probably three or four. So, I thought that was a perfect time to do something like that.

I realized one thing with the myth of Christmas: Children are just as smart as adults. I don’t want to make this a racial thing, but when I was growing up, we thought, “Is a white man going to come into our neighborhood on Christmas night and deliver gifts? Is this real?” However, when Black children see a Black Santa, they can relate to it. Children are offered a lot of things to think about, which they shouldn’t be. Too many guns on the street, too much this and that. But this allowed them to be a child. Children grew up thinking, “It’s a Black Santa. It’s real.”

I didn’t know the historical significance. I thought I was just fulfilling their dream. The white Santa on the Coca-Cola ads came with the white Jesus. Our people went to churches, and there’s this long-haired man. We praised him and then realized, “He may not be white.”

I think my daughter Kim knew I was Santa. Kim never really asked me anything about it. But I know one thing: When she was sitting on my lap, she was looking at me very hard, just staring at me. Is this my daddy or is this Santa Claus? I never said anything. I took the Santa Claus suit off before I walked in the house.

“I didn’t know the historical significance,” says Edward Pruett of portraying Santa Claus. “I thought I was just fulfilling their dream.” (Courtesy of Celestine and Kim Pruett)

I miss those times when we as people were good to each other. We enjoyed Christmas. We weren’t ducking bullets and being afraid. Back then, we enjoyed Christmas — not just Christmas with Santa Claus and gifts but the religious part of it. 

There was a little girl who had recently been burned. She had grabbed the handle of a hot pot on the stove. Her mother told me she had just gotten out of the hospital, and they didn’t have enough money for Christmas. I said, “Bring her up. I’ll take care of this.” I talked to her for about 12 minutes. You have limited time with each child, but I wanted to tell her you’re gonna be alright. Her mother came up to me later and said, “That’s the first time she’s smiled in a long time.” 

I wanted to know what her daughter wanted for Christmas, so I could contribute to that and make it real. I didn’t tell my wife, but I gave her $100. When you see things like this, you don’t do them for nuthin’ but what they’re supposed to be done for.

This story was reported by Canopy Atlanta, a community-powered journalism nonprofit. This story was informed by feedback from the West End community as part of the West End Issue, a series of stories about the neighborhood.