By Diane Herbst
In November 2020, Chris — who does not want his last name revealed for privacy concerns — put up a large blowup Black Santa in his Arkansas yard. Then he received an anonymous, racist letter in the mail. Horrified, he shared it on Facebook.
“Please remove your negro Santa Claus yard decoration,” the letter, signed by “Santa Claus,” said in part. “You should try not to deceive children into believing that I am negro. I am a caucasian (white man, to you) and have been for the past 600 years. Your being jealous of my race is no excuse for your dishonesty.”
In solidarity with Chris and his family, who are Black, their all-White neighbors quickly bought Black Santas to dot their own lawns in their North Little Rock neighborhood.
“It was very meaningful,” the 35-year-old events coordinator tells PEOPLE. “I literally did not know any of them, and they decided to put those up. It’s great that people who live around you can see wrong and want to make it right.”
The letter was also a catalyst for Chris — whose next-door neighbor, he says, flies a Confederate flag — to become Santa Claus himself.
“Representation is important to me,” Chris says, “because growing up, I didn’t see it.”
So in the summer of 2021, Chris said goodbye to his wife and daughter, now 5, and attended the New England Santa Society’s Santa Camp in New Hampshire.
There, he discovered other people who didn’t see themselves represented in Santa: Levi, a transgender Santa, and Fin, a Santa with spina bifida who communicates with an iPad and gets help from his mother, Suki.
The trio, featured in the new HBO Max documentary Santa Camp, which begins streaming Nov. 17, raise the question: Does Santa always have to be a White guy with a beard? The answer at the heart of Santa Camp: absolutely not, because Santa is for everyone.
In the trailer, which PEOPLE exclusively premiered, scores of aspiring Santas, Mrs. Clauses and elves gather to learn their Christmastime craft.
“I was curious about how Santa’s learn to be Santa,” the film’s director, Nick Sweeney, tells PEOPLE.
“Then I found out that there was actually a summer camp for Santa Clauses where they sleep in bunk beds, and sit around a campfire,” he continues, “and my mind just kind of started spinning, like how on earth could this exist?”
During Santa Camp that summer, however, organizers had an additional mission: tackling the lack of diversity in the industry.
“The issue we’ve run into is that people just have a very specific idea of what Santa should look like,” Santa Dan Greenleaf, co-founder of the New England Santa Society, says in the film. “A child wants somebody who looks like them. What’s the problem?”
The solution? Bring in a “lot of new Santas,” he says.
Levi, of Chicago, attended with his wife Heidi, who is in training to become a Mrs. Claus. With a PhD, she asks to be called “Dr. Claus.”
“I felt very welcomed at camp,” Levi, 44, tells PEOPLE. “I felt just part of the crew, part of the Santa gang, so it was great.”
Wishing to be known as Trans Santa Levi, the film reflects “being my whole self as Santa,” Levi says, “and living my own truth as Santa.”
For Levi, meeting a trans Santa as a child would have made a huge difference.
“I would’ve understood myself at a younger age,” he says. “I think I could have become my whole self sooner in life.”
But not everyone is ready to embrace a trans Santa. A few months after camp, Levi and Heidi appeared at a church event for LGBTQ youth billed as “Meet Trans Santa & Dr. Claus,” where several angry protestors gathered outside.
“This church is infected,” a man shouts in a scene captured in the film.
The documentary’s director knew in advance that there could be protestors, and security was ready. But learning that a group of Proud Boys showed up in a van was a frightening surprise.
“You see this footage of Proud Boys and these kind of brawls,” Sweeney tells PEOPLE. “My heart was definitely racing. There’s a few little moments where I’m talking to them and there’s a shaky sound to my voice. It was scary.”
Inside, meanwhile, Trans Santa Levi was meeting with young people who sought a Santa just like them. He and Heidi had no idea what was going on outside.
“We were very fortunate that there was security in place,” says Levi. “And really, not just for us, but for the children that night.”
The experience has certainly not scared Levi from making appearances. Instead, it “made me want to do it even more and be even more visible,” says Levi, who has a few gigs already booked with Dr. Claus Heidi for this coming season.
“You can’t back down,” Levi continues, “just because people are uneducated or don’t know.”
Another new Santa is Fin Ciappara, a.k.a. Santa Fin, who was born with a form of spina bifida, a neural tube defect that’s left the 32-year-old from Barre, Vermont, almost non-verbal, yet able to communicate through his iPad.
For Fin, his journey to becoming a Santa began almost about a decade ago, with appearances at a mall alongside his mom, known as Mama Claus. His sister, Rose, the family’s “head elf,” created a Santa Fin website.
“I want to show everyone I am a real Santa,” Santa Fin says in the film through his iPad with a smile on his face.
Adds his mother Suki: “It’s his dream.”
Following an uplifting experience at Santa Camp, Fin set his sights on his longtime dream to serve as Santa in a Christmas parade and ride in his big Santa sleigh.
When Suki shared with Fin that he’s been accepted as the Santa for the River of Light lantern parade in Waterbury, Vermont, that December, filmmakers were on hand to capture his overwhelming joy. The experience exceeded the family’s expectations.
“The reaction of the crowd was amazing,” Suki tells PEOPLE. “People were cheering and screaming his name and just going crazy. It was the most amazing moment ever.”
Chris, whose naturally dark beard is dyed a Santa-like white at a local salon, has also experienced rewarding moments since camp, appearing as Santa at a city-wide North Little Rock event that’s captured in the film.
This year, Chris’ Santa schedule is booked every weekend through Christmas, with appearances in parades, festivals, photo sessions and dances.
“The fact that most of the community embraced me and was willing to accept Santa Claus as me was amazing,” he says. “It’s been a good journey.”
And it’s one that the film’s producer, Stacey Reiss, hopes will continue. “I think people will watch this film because it’s about one of the most recognizable icons in the world,” she says, “and then they’ll come away from it, I hope, thinking that there’s room for everyone to be Santa and that there’s a Santa for everyone.”
Santa Camp premieres on HBO Max on Nov. 17.