Dozens of Santas cycle through Twin Cities shopping centers each year, spreading joy to children who entrust them with their holiday wish lists. What has been missing from that experience, some parents say, was a Kriss Kringle who represented a wider swath of believers.

This week, for the first time in the Mall of America's 24-year history, a black Santa will greet families for annual Christmas photos.

"This is a long time coming," said Landon Luther, co-owner of the Santa Experience, which has run the intimate photo studio at the mall for 10 years. "We want Santa to be for everyone, period."

The mall offers a free, wait-in-line-with-the-masses Santa, as well as the book-an-appointment Santa Experience, which this year added a second location at the Bloomington megamall. The appointments require purchase of a photo package.

Luther started a national search last spring for a diverse St. Nicholas that kids of color would be able to relate to. Santa Sid, a 20-year veteran at MOA, finally found one while at a Santa convention in Branson, Mo., where nearly 1,000 impersonators convened for a "Kringle family reunion" in July.

Larry Jefferson, a retired U.S. Army veteran from Irving, Texas, was the only black Santa Claus in attendance. The jovial actor agreed to sign a four-day contract to work in Minnesota, after which he'll return home to work the seasonal circuit in Dallas.

"It was like finding a needle in a haystack," said Luther, who runs the business with his girlfriend, Rachael Zuleger. "He considers himself a Santa for all."

From Thursday to Sunday, by appointment only, Jefferson will greet kiddos at the mall while decked as Santa Larry, passing out candy canes and reminding them how to stay off the naughty list: "Clean your rooms, eat your vegetables and do what your mommy and daddy say all year."

As he prepared for his first appointments Thursday morning, Jefferson said that skin tone doesn't matter to the kids he meets.

"What they see most of the time is this red suit and candy," he said, patting his sleek velvet coat. "[Santa represents] a good spirit. I'm just a messenger to bring hope, love and peace to girls and boys."

Becoming Santa

Jefferson officially began donning the red suit in 1999, but his love of playing St. Nick started as just a boy.

After his father hurt his back, a 12-year-old Jefferson took on the role of Santa in the Arkansas family home, divvying up presents for his younger siblings. It was a role that stuck, continuing long after he joined the U.S. Army infantry and served abroad in the Gulf War.

His young nephews may have catalyzed his decision to play Santa-for-hire after he practiced the act on them, Jefferson said. The boys were sick and wouldn't get a chance to visit the resident mall Santa, so he bought a $30 suit at Wal-Mart and affixed a fake beard, then knocked on their front door.

Following the visit, the parents asked if the boys knew who the visitor was. They replied, "Of course — it was Santa," Jefferson recalled with a chuckle.

Since then, he's graduated from a premiere Santa school, retired from the military and grown his own bushy white beard.

Last year, Jefferson became the first, and only, black member of the Lone Star Santas, a nonprofit boasting more than 350 Santa Clauses, Mrs. Clauses, and elves who donate toys to children in disaster-stricken areas.

Jim Fletcher, director emeritus of the fraternal order, said the group also has around six Hispanic Santas and at least two Jewish members. Ethnicity and religion are not what matters, he said; rather, it's the spirit of giving.

"Being Santa comes from the heart," Fletcher said. "It's not what comes down the chimney."

On Thursday morning, Jefferson emerged as Santa Larry, wowing toddlers and their siblings during individual play sessions. He spoke softly to his fans, patiently waiting for them to divulge their Christmas wishes.

Shelly Major, of Blaine, toted her three children to the photo studio for their few minutes with Jolly ol' St. Nick. "He was very warm," Major said.

Parents of biracial tots said they were especially pleased to show their kids that heroes come in all ethnicities. "Santa isn't just white," said Sara Schwantes, of Inver Grove Heights.

Hundreds of appointments requesting Jefferson have him booked solid Saturday and Sunday. Limited openings remained for Friday, and a waitlist was also available.

When educator Shanene Herbert heard Jefferson would be in town, she immediately contacted the MOA to see if she could coordinate a meet-and-greet with her students at Project SPIRIT, an after-school program for black children in St. Paul Public Schools.

The curriculum is meant to teach black culture through positive role models — traits she immediately recognized in Jefferson.

"Kids only see one image of Santa," said Herbert, director of Project SPIRIT. "Even though he's a fictional character, he could be any color, any race, any gender. This is an image of him too."

Meanwhile, Santa Larry has a Christmas wish too — to be invited to the White House by President Obama. He'd go see President-elect Donald Trump too, he said, if he comes calling.

Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648