An attendee of Santa Camp
Santa Chris at Santa Camp
Santa Fin at Santa Camp
Santa Levi, Dr. Claus Heidi and Santa Chris at Santa Camp
Santa Camp Santas gather for a group photo
Director Nick Sweeney was researching how Santa Clauses learn their trade when he heard about a summer camp in New Hampshire that trains aspiring Kris Kringles.
A summer camp... for Santas?
"My initial reaction was, 'That can't be real. It sounds so far-fetched,'" Sweeney (Born in the Wrong Body, AKA Jane Roe) says.
But the summer camp — sponsored by the New England Santa Society — is real, and some of its Santas are the stars of Sweeney's latest documentary, Santa Camp, produced by Sweeney and Stacey Reiss (The Andy Warhol Diaries).
The HBO Max film, streaming now, follows the Santas, Mrs. Clauses and elves in training as they learn the tricks of their trade and enjoy traditional camp activities such as swimming, kayaking and shooting hoops. And this year, the organizers of the camp take on a historic and persistent problem: the lack of diversity.
"People have a very specific idea of what Santa should look like, and to many people, that means, old, fat, white guy," Sweeney says.
The three Santas featured in Santa Camp don't fit the stereotype — Santa Chris, a Black man from Arkansas; Santa Levi, a transgender man from Chicago; and Santa Fin, a Vermonter who has spina bifida.
"The idea that Santa should break the mold is still surprisingly controversial," Sweeney says.
As we see in the film, Santa Fin's mother Suki struggles to book a parade gig for a disabled Santa; Santa Chris receives racist mail after displaying an inflatable Black Santa in his front yard; and Santa Levi and his partner Heidi, who plays the role of Dr. Claus, appear at a church Christmas event protested by members of a well-known hate group.
"It was one of the scariest shoots I've produced, and I've been doing this for a really long time," Reiss says of the protest.
Private security was hired, and the filmmakers split into two teams — one inside the church filming the event, and the other outside, led by Sweeney, filming the protesters.
The event ultimately went off without a hitch, and the filmmakers were moved to see the joy and acceptance so many kids as well as adults from the LGBTQ community experienced as they shared their Christmas wishes with Santa Levi and Dr. Claus.
While making Santa Camp, Sweeney had a personal revelation about how meaningful it would have been for him to have met a Santa from the LGBTQ community when he was a kid. "I'm gay, and I'm Pakistani-Australian, and I remember when I was young, I wanted to ask Santa for this special edition Barbie that came in a sari," he recalls.
But even as a little boy of seven or eight, Sweeney knew the request would not be well received. So he didn't ask Santa for the doll he really wanted.
"It's similar to the moment when Levi talks about how much it would've meant to him if he had been able to meet a Santa that was trans like him when he was a kid," the director says.
"Everyone should feel like they can see themselves in role models and icons," Reiss adds, "and Santa's the biggest one in the world."