OAKLAND, Calif. - By day, Eric Martin is a rough-and-tumble security guard at the Oakland Raiders training facility.
By evening, the 6-foot tall, 215-pound man plays Santa at Children’s Fairyland, a tradition at this small amusement park for more than two decades.
“I do tend to wear many hats,” Martin, 51, of Berkeley, told KTVU on Thursday morning with a laugh. “It’s wonderful to do this for the kids. I do understand the importance of black kids seeing a black Santa. It’s kind of obvious.”
Fairyland has had a black Santa for decades. But this Christmas is Martin’s debut year. The former black Santa, Ron Zeno, died in June.
“Ron’s Santa was warm, loving and respectful of the kids. He believed unconditionally in the power of peace and love to change the world, a belief he exuded during our holiday celebration,” said Fairyland’s executive director, C.J. Hirschfield.
So finding a new black Santa to fill Zeno’s red boots was a daunting task.
But it didn’t take too long to figure out that Martin could quickly fill them, Hirschfield said.
Martin is no stranger to Fairyland.
“My dad took me to Fairyland on Christmas when I was 8 years old,” Martin said.
Plus, through connections with a friend, Martin has been a stand-in Easter Bunny and “Captain Tiny” pirate at the park near the shores of Lake Merritt over the years. When Zeno fell sick over the last few years, Martin played Santa here and there.
Now that he’s full time, Martin is not disappointing the crowds.
“I’d say at least 100 children come to sit on my lap every night,” he said.
These kids are loving Santa at @FairylandCA— KTVU (@KTVU) December 22, 2017
Just two nights left before Christmas. Check out the tradition that this Santa is carrying on. @PaulChambersTV covers this sweet story https://t.co/L7uKHrvLkx pic.twitter.com/vEjTU7STpN
“The crowds are big,” Hirschfield added.
Schelagh Becrra took her children, who are part Navajo, Mexican and Irish, to sit on black Santa’s lap when Zeno was playing the role. And she’s thrilled that Fairyland is continuing the tradition in a city where one third of the residents are African-American.
“I feel like it definitely mattered to me,” she said. “I’m part of Oakland. I’ve seen Oakland change a lot. I felt it was important for my kids to see that Santa doesn’t have to be white.”
Martin has a sense of humor when he thinks about the stark contrast between his day job as an employee of Landmark Event Staffing Services “where I get into a certain demeanor to prevent problems before they start” and his job as jolly old St. Nick.
“Santa takes me away from that,” he said. “It’s full of innocence and fun. It teaches me to lighten up a bit.”
“It’s wonderful to do this for the kids. I do understand the importance of black kids seeing a black Santa. It’s kind of obvious.” -- Eric Martin aka Santa at @FairylandCA https://t.co/SOFv0nsEHY pic.twitter.com/dH59HLXcHy— Lisa Fernandez (@ljfernandez) December 22, 2017
Santa will be welcoming visitors at Fairyland daily through Saturday rom 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., and leading a parade at 6:15 p.m.