Chris Kennedy and his 4-year-old daughter, Emily, adorned their front lawn in North Little Rock, Ark., with Christmas decorations in early November, as they do every year.
They strung twinkly white lights along the rim of their home and stationed an inflatable Christmas tree and a towering Black Santa on the lawn, next to a colorful, illuminated sign that reads, “JOY.”
The spirited Christmas display, which the Kennedys have showcased for the last few holiday seasons, had only been met with cheer in their neighborhood of Lakewood, Kennedy said.
That changed Nov. 23, when Kennedy, 33, checked his mailbox and was stunned to find an anonymous, racist letter attacking the seven-foot Black Santa on his lawn.
“Please remove your negro Santa Claus yard decoration,” the letter, signed “Santa Claus,” demanded. “You should try not to deceive children into believing that I am negro. I am a caucasian (white man, to you) and have been for the past 600 years. Your being jealous of my race is no excuse for your dishonesty. Besides that, you are making yourself the laughing stock of the neighborhood. Obviously, your values are not that of the Lakewood area and maybe you should move to a neighborhood out east with the rest of your racist kind.”
The letter included an image of a White Santa Claus, with two thumbs pointing down.
Kennedy was horrified. Shortly after receiving the hateful message, he started a live stream on Facebook.
“I just got something in the mail that is one, incredibly offensive, and two, just says where we are,” Kennedy said at the start of the video.
“I am trying to be as nice as I can in this very moment because I am actually filled with rage,” he said. “It’s very disheartening because it’s holiday time; we’re in a pandemic.”
“I’ve literally put this Black Santa up for the last three years,” Kennedy continued, reinforcing that it has never been a problem in the past.
Kennedy’s wife, Iddy Kennedy, 31, was also deeply disturbed by the letter.
“I was genuinely hurt,” she said. “When we originally received it, I wondered if we had made the right choice; if this was the right environment to raise our daughter.”
Up until Veterans Day, the family had a Black Lives Matter flag outside their home, and they have been active in the movement since George Floyd’s death in May.
Kennedy promptly filed a harassment report with the local police department and a separate report with the post office.
The letter was enclosed in an envelope with a taped return address label for Lakewood Property Owners Association. The organization confirmed it had no part in the letter.
Evan Blake, the executive director of the association, visited the Kennedys at their home to condemn the incident and assure them that they are valued members of the Lakewood community.
After sharing the letter on Facebook, Kennedy received a torrent of messages from neighbors, he said.
“Tons expressed how eye-opening it has been to see this type of ugliness,” Kennedy said.
Then something magical happened.
As more neighbors heard about the letter, they rallied in solidarity with the Kennedys. Slowly but surely, Black Santas began popping up, one by one, on the lawns of Lakewood.
Chip Welch, 70, was one of the first to put a Black Santa on his front lawn after seeing the story on a neighborhood bulletin board.
“It was unsolicited, it was undeserved, it was un-Christmas, and hopefully it was not reflective of Lakewood, and certainly not reflective of the kind of country I want to live in,” said Welch, who has lived in the neighborhood with his wife for more than 20 years. “We were all pretty concerned about it, and we decided it would be poetic for everyone to get Black Santas.”
Seeing an array of Black Santas around the community, “it’s making me feel like I wasn’t wrong about our neighborhood,” Welch added. “This is the way it ought to be.”
Across the street, Will and Paula Jones stationed a Black Santa on their front lawn, too.
“I’m on the board of directors of our neighborhood association, so I heard about it right when the letter came,” said Paula Jones, 48. “My first reaction was, ‘Where can I get one?'”
Ben Keller, 31, also a Lakewood resident, felt the same way. When he and his wife spotted the story on social media, they were distraught.
“When we saw what happened to Chris, we knew we couldn’t just stand by and not do anything,” Keller said. “We instantly decided what better way to support him than getting our own Santa display?”
Their 2-year-old son is Black, and “he is absolutely thrilled to see some Santas that reflect back to him,” Keller said.
So many neighbors have ordered Black Santas that many retailers are apparently running low on supply.
That’s why Tim Giattina’s Black Santa has yet to arrive. He and his wife are anxiously awaiting their package.
“The letter is not what our neighborhood is about, and it’s not what Christmas is about,” said Giattina, 40. “There’s no place for it, and we want to do everything we can to show support.”
For the Kennedys, the overwhelming support has turned a painful and frightening situation into a clear demonstration that the letter-writer is an anomaly in the neighborhood.
“There is definitely more positive than negative,” said Iddy Kennedy, who is a pharmacist at a children’s hospital. “The outpouring of support made me realize that this is the perfect place to raise our daughter.
“She may not understand but she definitely notices the Black Santas popping up,” she continued. “I would like to think that’s a warm and fuzzy feeling. I didn’t see it growing up, but the fact that it will be normalized for her gives me hope for the future.”
Her husband agreed: “The outpouring of love, support, and unity that we’re seeing from the community has just been incredible,” said Chris Kennedy, who is a food blogger. “People have been stopping by and honking. We’ve gotten cards, gifts and letters from different people in the neighborhood and even across the U.S.”
The Kennedys now have two Black Santas on their front lawn after a man from New York heard about the story and shipped one to them.
People have also asked to send donations, and Kennedy has redirected all requests to the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkansas.
“Donations have started pouring in from all over,” said Janell Mason, the executive director of the charity, adding that more than $1,000 has been raised in honor of the Kennedy family. “It’s so touching, and it just is humanity doing good things.”
Having an elaborate Christmas display is a long-standing tradition for Kennedy, dating back to his childhood years, when he would decorate with his father. Since his death on Thanksgiving in 2004, Kennedy has been decorating early every year, in his father’s memory.
In the years to come, when the Kennedys inflate their Black Santa, it will take on even more meaning.
“At the end of the day, what was meant for evil was flipped for good,” Kennedy said. “We are showing that we are truly better together and united as one.”
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