LOS ANGELES — Dressed in a red Santa suit, white beard and rimless glasses balanced on his nose, Langston Patterson sits on a velvet couch and waits for his adoring fans.
Some call first to make sure he will be there. They come from Palmdale, Thousand Oaks and San Bernardino, driving past many shopping malls with Santas, but none that look like him.
For nearly a decade, Patterson has been the main attraction at Los Angeles' Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza during Christmastime: a rare black Santa Claus in a sea of white ones.
The mall, located in the heart of black Los Angeles, is one of the few in the country with a black Santa Claus. Some say Patterson is the only black shopping-mall Santa Claus in the Los Angeles area.
As visitors approached him on a recent afternoon, it was hard to tell who was more excited: the youngsters or the adults. The parents are the most loyal. They return with grandchildren, passing on a tradition with a deep personal meaning.
"We need our kids to understand that good things happen in chocolate skin," said Til Prince, 50, of Palmdale, watching her granddaughter, niece and her niece's son pose with Patterson. "We are often bombarded with the opposite. We're not trying to exclude anybody, but (instead) celebrate our chocolate skin."
Patterson's place in the Christmas traditions of black families seems only to have increased as the African-American population of Los Angeles continues to decline amid waves of Latino immigration.
The Crenshaw mall now has both a black Santa and a Spanish-speaking Latino Santa, a nod to the demographic shift. "We make a point to stay in tune with our community," said Rachel Erickson, the mall's marketing director.
Perched at his post in the middle of the mall, Patterson greets the eager and the weary. He disarms frightened children with a swift high-five and shares jokes with their parents.
They've come to expect him the last two months of every year, seven days a week, four hours a day.
Like many of the children who visit him, he doesn't believe his skin color makes him different. He's simply Santa.
"I never even thought about it," the 77-year-old said. "I'm just giving back and making the kids happy."