'Kente Claus' brings Afrocentric Christmas cheer to Toronto and beyond

As children around the world excitedly prepare for the arrival of Santa Claus, one of his self-described “chief joy officers” is spreading Christmas cheer with an Afrocentric focus in Toronto and beyond.

Dewitt Lee says vision of character came to him as a 'download from heaven'

Kente Claus brings an Afrocentric focus to spreading Christmas cheer. (Paul Smith/CBC)

As children around the world excitedly prepare for the arrival of Santa Claus, one of his self-described "chief joy officers" is spreading Christmas cheer with an Afrocentric focus in Toronto and beyond.

Kente Claus (also known as Dewitt Lee), has been visiting hospitals, shelters and other community organizations since last year. Lee said he began playing the part when the character came to him in a vision. Or, as he calls it, "a download from heaven."

"I was thinking of a way to give back to my community," Lee told CBC Toronto. "And because I have such a great appreciation for what culture brings to our society, I wanted to champion something that also invited culture into it, because it makes it much more rich when culture tells the story."

Lee had been working at a factory. But when he and his colleagues were laid off, he was able to devote himself to the character full time.

And he took the "download from heaven" seriously. He bought a Santa suit, had portraits taken and set up a website advertising Kente Claus's services. The website describes Kente Claus as "an Afrocentric Father Christmas who spreads the true reason for the season.

"His jolly stories of hope, joy and unity are shared through Kwanzaa principles and African proverbs. He shares stories about his travels across the African continent and the Caribbean islands helping out his friend St. Nick," the site reads.

'The reason for the season'

The term "kente" is the type of fabric used in traditional clothing from Ghana. It's a colourful fabric that is also part of storytelling.

Lee notes that the Bible story of Jesus's family fleeing to Egypt is a story about the first Christmas in Africa. He tells that story to talk about miracles, "and to try to help those remember the reason for the season."

It's also a story relevant to Toronto, Lee said.

"To be able to tell the story of a refugee is very important because we are a sanctuary city here in Toronto," he said. "We call to people who are persecuted and open our doors and our shores."

But that doesn't mean children don't get gifts and that Kente Claus doesn't embody some of the spirit of Santa, he said.

Kente Claus works for the "Claus Corporation" as Santa's "chief joy officer" for Africa and the Caribbean, he said.

"We work together to bring joy to children all over the world," he said.
Yolanda Marshall says Kente Claus gives her and others "a sense of belonging." (Paul Smith/CBC)

This week, that joy took the form of the Imagination Youth Awards, which Kente Claus hands out to youths up to age 13 who are doing good for their community or overcoming obstacles to help themselves or others.

On Thursday, Kente Claus presented awards to seven youths in Buffalo, N.Y. On Saturday, he honoured five youths here in Toronto. And he was preparing a video presentation for three young people in Trinidad and Tobago.

'It's a sense of belonging'

Parent Yolanda Marshall, who was at the Imagination awards event on Saturday with her toddler, said "it's a beautiful thing to have a representation in your community about Christmas, a Santa Claus that looks like yourself, a Santa Claus that teaches you about your culture, your history.

"It's a sense of belonging."

Marshall herself is doing her part to remind residents of Caribbean descent about their Christmas traditions with a children's book about foods that are commonly made at this time of year.

The book, A Piece of Black Cake for Santa, includes colourful illustrations.

"I wanted to put out a book for those kids who can relate to this at Christmastime," Marshall said. "It represents us. It represents our home and the foods we eat at Christmas."