© 2020 WYSO
Our Community. Our Nation. Our World.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

New Orleans Residents Share Decades Of Photos With The Same Santa

ALLISON AUBREY, HOST:

Christmas Eve is a great time to catch a glimpse of Santa, whether it's in real life or in one of these movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN' TO TOWN")

FRED ASTAIRE: (As Narrator) You better watch out, you better not cry, better not pout...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A CHRISTMAS STORY")

JEFF GILLEN: (As Santa Claus) You'll shoot your eye out, kid. Merry Christmas. Ho, ho, ho.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ELF")

WILL FERRELL: (As Buddy) Santa. Oh, my God. Santa here? I know him. I know him.

AUBREY: Well, the movies are fun. But for a lot of people in New Orleans, visiting Santa in person is a special tradition, particularly one Saint Nick known as the Chocolate Santa. This week, thousands of people have been posting old photos and commenting about him on Twitter. People love him, but as Tegan Wendland at member station WWNO reports, they might love him a little too much.

FRED PARKER: Hello.

TEGAN WENDLAND, BYLINE: Hi, Santa. How you doing?

PARKER: Better than I was yesterday.

WENDLAND: Oh, that's good. I brought you some flowers.

He's easy to recognize, even in a hospital gown. His fluffy gray beard, radiant smile and bright eyes welcomed me, even though he's sick with pneumonia. After holding thousands of kids this holiday season, 74-year-old Fred Parker had to cancel an appearance yesterday and head to the ER. He just didn't have the energy to hold another kid.

PARKER: I really feel bad to have to cancel. One lady was crying. She was trying to talk to me. So I found out that the public seems to love me.

WENDLAND: That might be an understatement. After 46 years of being Santa, Parker has become an icon, a new Orleans tradition, a rite of passage. Generations of kids have sat on his lap. Before he had to leave, hundreds of people lined up Friday night with their kids dressed up in little bow ties and big, colorful hair bows to sit on his lap. Ietha Walker did so when she was little and brought her 1-year-old son Ethan to do the same.

IETHA WALKER: I felt he was the real deal, even when I was a kid.

WENDLAND: If you grew up in New Orleans, the only reason you might not have pictures with Chocolate Santa is if they were ruined by the floodwaters of Katrina a decade ago.

WALKER: It's a tradition. It's a tradition. I mean, I lost mine. And I want to start a new tradition with him to take pictures with Santa.

WENDLAND: Joseph Harris is one of Chocolate Santa's photographers in the 7th Ward. When he was a kid, he got his photo taken with the man.

JOSEPH HARRIS: He's a living legend.

WENDLAND: Decades ago, Chocolate Santa was a bus driver. Joseph Harris rode on his bus. He says he was firm but loving. And every Christmas, he'd buy all the kids on the bus Happy Meals.

HARRIS: At one time, we didn't have our own Santa. And he gave people a sense that they could do whatever they wanted to do.

WENDLAND: He means a Santa who looked like the children of the 7th Ward - black.

HARRIS: Some kids say - oh, are you real? And they pull on his beard. They pat his stomach. Then they checks his silky gray hair.

WENDLAND: It's all real. Parker started as Santa back in 1970, at a time when black Santas were rare in Louisiana. People online are saying they can't believe he's still at it after all these years. There are photos from the '80s and '90s and side-by-sides of parents' childhood photos next to their kids'. He keeps doing it because he loves it, even though for three years now, he's ended up in the hospital.

PARKER: I love making people happy, giving them joy.

WENDLAND: And to kids, he says, don't worry about tonight. He's got you covered.

PARKER: I'll make sure that all their toys are delivered. They won't miss anything because I'm here. I've got a substitute that's going to take care of everything. And Rudolph is going to guide them out of there and put them down. They don't have to worry.

WENDLAND: He says he'll be back after Christmas to take photos with the kids who missed out. And people love him so much, they don't even care that the holiday will be over. Hundreds have already signed up.

For NPR News, I'm Tegan Wendland in New Orleans.

AUBREY: We chose some of our favorite photos with Chocolate Santa and posted them on our website. You can see them at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN")

UNIDENTIFIED ARTIST: (Singing) He took me to his workshop and told his plans to me. You better watch out. You better not cry. You better not pout, I'm telling you why. Santa Claus is coming to town. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.