Philadelphia This is the fifth year David Robinson has donned the red suit with furry white trim, tasseled hat, and giant boots. His beard, naturally thick, is a mix of reddish brown and white, the strange result of a partially successful dye job aimed at achieving the perfect look of Old St. Nick.
His voice is heavy, yet cheerful. His manner gentle and welcoming. Everything you'd expect from Santa.
Save for one thing. His skin is black.
"I have never seen a black Santa before. Are you for real?" asked one of the 7-year-old twins on Robinson's lap at the Cheltenham Square Mall in Philadelphia last week.
That was when Santa's natural beard came in handy. "Yes, I am," Robinson replied. "Pull my beard and see."
Robinson, 53, is one of a small but growing number of black men who don Santa duds each holiday season, giving black children a chance to see another image of that famous traveling gift-giver.
Mostly, "children haven't really said anything about skin color," Robinson said. "They just tell me what they want for Christmas and what they want their mamas to have for Christmas."
At 6-foot-4 and 310 pounds, Robinson is imposing when standing, but when he is seated, children at Cheltenham Square happily climb onto his lap.
While few question him about, well, not looking like the other Santa, parents show their glee. Many pridefully snap pictures of their kids with him. Even a few women expressed joy at seeing Robinson and jumped onto his lap for photos.
"One lady came by and said, 'You look good, Santa,'" recalled Robinson, who spends several hours each day in an enclosed area in the mall. "She sat right down on my lap. A lot of them never had a black Santa when they were kids."
"It's important that my daughter know that not just one race is out there doing good," said Jennie Wylie, 24, as her daughter, Nani Washington, 1, smiled at the bearded man. "It is important that she experience that very early."
It's an experience LaTanya Lewis, 37, wants her children to have, and she has been taking them to the mall for several years. Her 14-year-old son is too old now, but on Tuesday she watched as Tavion, 7, and his sister, Temani, 4, posed for pictures and rattled off their wish lists.
"When my daughter saw him last year, she said, 'Santa is only white,'" Lewis said. "That told me how important it was for them to see that Santa can come in all colors."
Lewis said she spread the word to friends and coworkers.
So what's so special about the color of the mythical man who, save for his face (and hands, in this case), is covered in red?
"It's just a preference," said Niles Desphy, 36, a software developer who watched as his wife, Lisa, tried to get their daughter, 9-month-old Riley, to smile with Santa.
"We've been bombarded with white Santas for so long, just like the white Jesus," Desphy added. "I want my child to see someone she can identify with."