ST. PETERSBURG — Kevin Moore didn’t plan on being Santa this year.
When the call came, he didn’t have a Santa suit. It had been nearly 25 years since the last time he did the honors. Now, he had two days to transform. Two days to secure the classic red suit and acquire a festive beard.
“What does Black Santa do?” Moore asked his family as they sat on the sofa the night before his debut.
They pulled out their phones and combed the internet. He began practicing his Santa voice.
Moore was preparing for the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum’s Holiday Stroll. The museum’s long-time Santa, Donald Dowridge, wasn’t going to make it this year.
“My Santa got COVID,” said Terri Lipsey Scott, the museum’s executive director. So she called Moore, asking if he’d fill in. And he agreed.
When the day arrived, Moore sat tucked in the museum’s Legacy Garden, dwarfed by the Christmas tree that stood behind him at nearly double his height. To his left, a sparkling red mail box held letters addressed to the North Pole as children passed by, adding to the collection.
That was the first night Moore had tried on his Santa costume, and the night he let his daughter swab pink blush on his cheeks to give them a rosy glow.
In the garden, bright lights glistened as the blue sky faded to black. Blow-up Santas, reindeers and snowmen beamed as crickets chirped. Blood red poinsettias scattered about marked the arrival of Christmas.
‘A Santa that looks like me’
On Wednesday, Dec. 2, the coronavirus took over Dowridge’s body.
“It was like I was being attacked, almost like I was hit by a truck,” said Dowridge, 64. The pain radiated through his back to his toes. He went to the hospital, where he stayed for three days. They gave him blood clot medication and another drug so strong it made him vomit. He received plasma with antibodies, which finally lowered his temperature.
Over a week after being released, he was about 80 percent back to normal, he said.
“You can’t keep a good Santa down,” said Dowridge, who suffered from a lingering cough and some brain fog. Out of quarantine and still taking it slow a week before Christmas meant he had to miss out on most of his traditional Santa appearances.
“I do miss doing Santa,” said Dowridge, who has filled the role for 12 years, including about five for the Woodson museum. “I was really looking forward to it this year.”
As Santa, he spontaneously belts out holiday tunes and dreams up Christmas tales on the spot. Children dash up to listen.
Sometimes they shout, “Oh, a Black Santa!” or “Oh, a Santa that looks like me!” and “that does my heart good,” Dowridge said.
Growing up in Baltimore’s foster care system, “I came up through some hard Christmases,” he said. For him, being Santa is about spreading love.
This year, that task would fall to Moore.
Toy drive donations come through
Nine-year-old Mahogany Stevens hopped up the three stone steps that led to Santa’s perch.
“Are you ready for Christmas?” asked Santa. Mahogany’s brown braids bounced fiercely atop her head in affirmation. Christmas is the holiday she looks forward to most. It’s the only time of year she can dip a peppermint candy cane into her hot chocolate — her favorite Christmas treat.
Then came “Santa’s favorite Bulls fan,” clad in bright red Chicago Bulls apparel. After that, a young girl sporting red reindeer antlers. And Zachary Green, 12.
“Zack, my future engineer!” said Santa. “Zack’s gonna design my new car in 10 years. And I want it to fly.”
The two chuckled. “How about I make you teleport?” Zack asked before posing for a photo.
That Saturday evening, in the garden, dreams felt a little closer to reality.
Later, another young girl peered out from behind her father’s legs, a frown crossing her face.
“What are you scared of?” her father asked.
“Santa,” she replied. But she came around when Santa asked if she wished for a doll this Christmas, offering a soft head nod.
For Moore, that’s the most fun, when kids give up their hesitation and oblige. He remembers his first time visiting Santa as a young boy. In the moment, he was too scared to pose, and when his father finally snapped the photo, young Moore had tears streaming down his cheeks.
This winter, the tables have turned. Children are revealing their holiday wishes to him. But “nobody asked for the world,” said Moore.
A brown puppy. A Black doll. A horse. Then came 10-year-old Brianna Leeks’ wish for a vacation for her parents.
“I don’t really like all the presents,” said Leeks, who visits Santa every year. “I like having my family around.”
Her twin sister, Dionna, has health issues that have kept the family locked up at home amid the pandemic, which made their visit to see Santa particularly enchanting.
This year, Brianna said, “I’m just happy they’re alive.”
As COVID-19 cases rose this year, the number of organizations providing holiday gifts to families in need dwindled.
In response, the Woodson museum hosted a toy drive bigger than most years. Once the museum opened sign ups for 100 families in need of gifts this holiday, the slots filled quickly. Then, Lipsey Scott took a leap of faith, opening slots for 50 more families in hopes that donations could fill the need.
Those slots filled too. And each family in need received a $100 gift card donated by St. Petersburg businessman Bill Edwards and the Edwards Family Foundation.
The donations that poured in from families, companies and local organizations exceeded expectations. Among them were gifts from Moore’s family and company, Enterprise Holdings, where the man in a Santa suit is the vice president and general manager.
The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.
Correction: Kevin Moore is vice president and general manager of Enterprise Holdings. Captions in an earlier version of this story gave an incorrect title. Also, an earlier version incorrectly identified 12-year-old Zachary Green.