Yes, New Orleans, there is a Santa Claus — and his spirit lives on in the Seventh Ward

Taylor Pittman posing with Fred Parker in 2011. Photo provided by Taylor Pittman

Story by Ravien Iris Burns, senior at L.W. Higgins High School

This story was originally published in an ongoing partnership with The Gambit. The following is that article, verbatim.

Editor’s note: Dear parents, please be advised, this story contains certain spoilers not suitable for anyone smart and wonderful enough to believe in Santa. Merry Christmas!

When Megan Braden-Perry, 35, was visiting the Gentilly Woods Mall as a child, her mother pointed out where Santa was sitting, greeting other young girls and boys. But something didn’t seem quite right.

That Santa Claus was Fred Parker, known best as Seventh Ward Santa or “Chocolate Santa,” who visited malls, churches and schools to bring joy to both kids and adults for 47 years.

This Santa looked nothing like the image young Braden-Perry, who is Black, had associated with the jolly bearer of gifts. Sure, he had a beard, a red suit and a smile brimming with cheeks. But she was shocked to see him with a skin tone similar to her own.

“I remembered I had only seen white Santa Clauses because that image is basically everywhere,” Braden-Perry, a journalist — and former Gambit listings editor and columnist — from the Seventh Ward, says.

Feeling as if something had happened to him, Braden-Perry recalls that she freaked out, started crying and ran away. But after a couple of more visits, she came to see things the other way around.

“Any Santa who is not Fred Parker is an imposter,” she says. “It’s not the real thing.”

Although Parker passed away in August this year at the age of 78 due to health issues, he lives on in the spirit of Christmas. More importantly: his everyday generosity, mirth and love for those around him made him something of a 365-days-a-year Santa, beloved by New Orleans’ Black community and beyond.

This year, Gambit has asked residents to share their memories about “The Real Santa” and what he meant for New Orleans over the years.

Parker simply changed the game when it came to representation. To be exact: Black representation in a world of white Santas.

Parker was born in Lake, Mississippi, in 1942 as the ninth of what would be 10 children. He served as a speed radio operator in the Army before moving to New Orleans. After the Army, he took on a job as a bus driver for Orleans Parish School Board for 26 years.

“I don’t know the best answer for you,” Parker told VICE News Tonight in 2017 when asked how he became Santa. “I never planned this. The one thing I can say is that it’s a gift from heaven. God put me where I need to be.”

But Parker’s real Santa origin story is sweeter than a candy cane. In 1971 while driving the school bus, Parker dressed up as Santa and bought his whole bus McDonald’s. After that, he just became Santa more and more each following year.

Even after his retirement from bus driving, he wasn’t done working with children just yet.

Since that fateful December in 1971, he became Seventh Ward Santa and donned dozens of Santa suits over the years. He struck a tall, smiling figure with his signature cheerful laughter and love for children.

A lot of people have fond memories of Parker, but few of them can say that Santa was their dad. Linitta Parker Lewis, Parker’s daughter, speaks with pride and joy about her father.

“Knowing that he was my dad, how could I not believe in Santa?” Lewis says.

To Lewis, her father was a kind, loving, hard-working man who didn’t play around when it came to education or doing the right thing. He worked two jobs — driving cabs at the same time he drove school buses. She saw him as both a parent and a hero.

 “It was fun and inspiring,” Lewis says. “I have always believed in Santa Claus. How could I not say his room was right across the hall?”

Lewis, an only child, and her mother would often bake for family and their church group throughout the entire holiday season. They made treats like caramel squares, sweet potato pie, tea cakes and cookies. In a sense, the whole house was Santa’s workshop.

“Our home was full of joy and decor around the holidays,” Lewis says. “I love Christmas lights more than anything. The way they sparkle and twinkle, it’s magical.”

In certain ways, Lewis’ childhood felt like a fairytale.

As a little girl, Lewis explained that she was never one for an extravagant list but it was wonderful to know that whatever she did request was granted.

One year, Lewis saw a commercial on TV for a Snoopy Sno-cone Machine and immediately had her heart set on it. She asked her father for it, but sadly didn’t get it that Christmas Day. But this is the daughter of Santa we’re talking about. Somehow Parker managed to find the snow cone maker and gave it to her shortly afterward. That’s who Parker was. He always wanted to do the best he could by honoring any reasonable request from a kid.

“Daddy knew he was dying but never let on to anyone else,” Lewis says. “He was his happy jolly self until the end. His death hit me like a ton of bricks.”

“Although I saw it coming, it has left a huge hole,” she adds. “We talked every day, sometimes eight times a day. If he thought of something he called. He was my 7 a.m. wakeup call every single day.”

Lewis’ mother, Peacola Bateast Parker, was heartbroken when Parker passed away. She lost her best friend, a man who cooked for her every day until he got sick. Peacola herself passed away just shy of three months after Parker. Lewis says it brings her great joy knowing that her parents are dancing together again and watching over her — just like when she was little.

This year, Lewis has been baking Santa cookies that look just like Fred in his honor.

But the memory of Parker and his fatherly love went beyond his family. Parker etched so many cheerful memories of New Orleans residents into vivid photographs of that jolly old elf aside themselves.

Braden-Perry doesn’t remember exactly how old she was when she first ran off crying after seeing Black Santa — and she lost the photos she took with him to Hurricane Katrina — but she still remembers the emotions she felt whenever she saw him.

The second time she saw Parker was when she was in the third grade at McDonogh 39 Elementary School. That year, she was convinced that she was not going to make the nice list. Braden-Perry accidentally burnt her chin with a hot lamp and was embarrassed when he asked what happened. But just when she thought she was doomed for the naughty list, he was kind and understanding, making her feel at ease.

Thankfully, Braden-Perry’s son Franklin, now 6, didn’t go through the same anxieties she had gone through. They had a long wait, but Franklin was a lot less intimidated by Parker.

“He was the staple of Christmas for everybody in the New Orleans area — especially for Black people,” says Cyrus Jones, a 37-year-old naval officer.

Unfortunately due to Parker’s passing, Jones wasn’t able to get Christmas pictures with his daughter, who is now 2 years old.

“I knew it was inevitable that his time was going to expire,” he says. “We all were waiting for that opportunity to have children get that one last round of photos.”

Antoine Banks was 10 years old when Parker visited his class at Lawrence D. Crocker Elementary School in 1989. He was particularly impressed by how Santa praised his principal for convincing Santa to visit his school.

“I remember his smile, calmness, and his ability to make me and all my classmates feel like we were all special — and that Christmas was just for us,” Banks reminisced in an email to Gambit.

Banks later went on to learn just how many young New Orleanians also met this same very special Santa. And when he was in college, Banks received photos of his nephews, friends and family with Parker, which warmed his heart.

“I started to believe Santa was real,” Banks wrote. “Santa never aged. I became a grown man believing in Santa. The Christmas spirit never left me that day in 1989.”

Kendrick White took photos with Parker for years, marking just one point in a longstanding tradition for his family. 

“Three generations in my life have taken pictures with the man,” White says, referring to his father, 67, and his son, 10, who took photos with Parker. “Santa has been here forever.”

White felt devastated over the news of Parker’s passing. He calls Parker a kind of Christmas miracle, as he’d never known any other Santa.

“I know you see people give their roses while they are here, but sometimes you don’t expect the unexpected,” White says.

After years of bringing joy to Christmas revelers’ faces, Parker’s passing wasn’t taken lightly. But one person in particular is now trying his best to guide Santa’s sleigh from now on.

“In my mind, he was Santa Claus. He wasn’t like a regular human — almost like a superhero,” Gentilly’s Santa Claus Matt Brown says.

Brown was just a little boy when he took his photo with Parker in the library at Claiborne Elementary (now Mary D. Coghill Elementary). Sadly, just like Braden-Perry, Hurricane Katrina took those old photos from Brown as well. Thankfully, that wouldn’t be Brown’s last sighting of old Saint Nick. As he got older, Brown started working in the school system, and started seeing Parker more and more often.

“After all these years, he’s still doing his job,” Brown says.

Despite the spirit of Christmas being all about special surprises, Brown says he never imagined he would step to the plate to become Gentilly Santa in 2019.

Brown was shocked to hear about Parker’s passing. Though he has a genuine love and care for children, Brown waited on taking the position of Gentilly Santa, he says, due to how he thought people would react to Parker being replaced. But after getting some motivation from Santa himself, he decided to step into the role.

“This is probably what he would want, someone to fill that void and continue to create those lifelong memories with families in the city,” Brown says. “I just hope that I’m making him proud.”

According to his daughter, Fred Parker decided that he wanted to shave his beard once he died. He didn’t want anyone — especially children — to think that Santa passed away. In that way, his Santa will never be gone nor forgotten.

“It is a time of great joy and sadness for me,” Lewis says about this particular Christmas without her father. “I would love to see him adorn that red suit one more time. Thankfully I have lots of videos that I can replay, and I saved all of my voicemails that he left me.“