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A holiday display features a diverse group of Santas to better reflect the community

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

For millions, Santa is a beloved symbol of Christmas. A holiday display in Denver helps make him more relatable to a diverse audience. Colorado Public Radio's Kevin Beaty explains.

KEVIN BEATY, BYLINE: Angelo Mendez stares into a mirror. He sticks a white mustache onto his lip. And with that, the actor becomes Santa. But he brings his own background to the role.

ANGELO MENDEZ: When I do Santa - and as I'm getting into it right now (laughter) - I don't forget that Santa not only loves sugar cookies, but he loves bunuelos, pastelitos de guayaba (laughter).

BEATY: Did you grow up with Santa Clauses that looked like you or spoke Spanish?

MENDEZ: Never (laughter).

BEATY: Really?

MENDEZ: No.

BEATY: Mendez plays the big guy at Camp Christmas, an immersive holiday exhibit organized by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. It's a huge installation of holiday lights and colorfully decorated rooms.

MENDEZ: Bienvenidos (laughter).

BEATY: Another Santa is Black, and one is fluent in American Sign Language. The diverse casting is intentional after some past criticism, says Lonnie Hanzon, the artist behind Camp Christmas.

LONNIE HANZON: There was a gentleman that wrote, you know, I walked into a bar with a thousand white Santas staring at me, and it told me that I did not belong. And it really - that really, you know, was like - it was a wake-up call.

BEATY: Santa's depiction as a jolly fat white guy who brings gifts is rooted in advertising from companies like Coca-Cola in the 1930s. Hanzon wants him to connect with more kids.

HANZON: We can make the holidays what we want to make it. And it can be a good thing.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Run, run Rudolph...

BEATY: And while representation is important to these Santas, James Brunt, the Black Santa, says it all really comes back to holiday spirit.

JAMES BRUNT: I want to just bring joy. You never know what someone's going through. And I've met people who are, like, sick and, like, stuff like that, and they were just, like, so floored to, like, be able to see me. And it just, like, warmed my heart. Like, it made me go - that, like, nothing really matters except for making people happy.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: Merry Christmas.

BEATY: For NPR News, I'm Kevin Beaty in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Beaty