Titus Hopper is almost constantly surrounded by kids.
Many of them are older; for instance, the middle- and high-school kids he assists in his full-time job as career readiness coordinator for Cleveland County Schools.
Two are his own; his son, Josiah, who turns 7 on Thursday, and his daughter Lauryn, who is 6.
And during the Christmas season, the 47-year-old Shelby native can be found interacting with all kinds of youngsters in the holliest, jolliest way possible. Over the past few years, he’s become a sought-after Santa Claus-for-hire who stands out among a sea of white Kris Kringles — because he just so happens to be Black.
It’s something that Hopper embraces. His nickname is Hop The Black Santa. His favorite hashtag is “#BroHoHo.”
But while his skin color certainly makes him unique (according to a 2021 poll of 376 Santas conducted by noted “National Santa” Tim Connaghan and researchers from three major U.S. public universities, two were Black), what’s even more remarkable is this:
Hopper remembers a time, not even 10 years ago, when he wasn’t comfortable being anywhere near young kids, particularly babies.
“I got to a point in my life where, if I saw a couple coming with children, I would turn and go in the other direction,” Hopper says, as he sits in the living room of the home he built in Kings Mountain with his wife, Michelle, in 2020. “Because I didn’t want to see children. I didn’t want to hold children.
“I didn’t want to deal with children.”
So, then, how in the world did Titus Hopper end up embracing the idea of being a professional Santa Claus?
An unconventional upbringing
Hopper’s earliest childhood Christmas memories involve fairly traditional delights — warm family gatherings with his parents and his siblings at his paternal grandmother’s house, full of presents and games and stories and laughter.
The later ones, however, aren’t as happy.
When he was just 6, he lost his mom to breast cancer. About eight years later, when he was in ninth grade at Shelby High School, Hopper’s dad died of a lung disease.
After that, extended family members convinced one of Hopper’s three older brothers (who was eight years older than him) to move back into the house, which met the legal standard permitting the high-schooler to continue living there. But his older brother, Hopper says, didn’t take on a role as either a parent or a guardian. “We just co-existed,” is how he describes the arrangement.
He was never formally appointed a guardian.
Instead, he created a “village” around him: Friends, neighbors, teachers, coaches of his sports teams and guidance counselors who checked in on him, had his back, encouraged him, kept him out of trouble.
And although every Christmas season after his father died had a distinct bittersweetness to it — with Hopper putting up and decorating a tree by himself and literally buying and wrapping his own gifts — by the time December 25th rolled around, he’d have landed a holiday invitation from someone in his village.
“I’d go find the people I love,” he says. “I’m like, ‘I’m not gonna be by myself.’”
That village, by the way, would eventually help guide him to North Carolina State University, where he wound up double-majoring in biology and science education. In 1998, he earned his bachelor’s to become the first in his immediate family to graduate from college.
With that, he set to work trying to better kids’ lives, initially as a math and science teacher in the Cleveland County school system starting in 1999; then — beginning in 2003 — as director of a nonprofit aimed at helping troubled youth and affiliated with his church, Faith Harvest in Shelby.
In 2010, he added love to his resume after reconnecting that August with a woman named Michelle Jackson, who he’d met just once 15 years earlier, when he was at NC State and she was a student at Shaw University in Raleigh. She was still in the Triangle area, working as an assistant nurse manager at UNC Health Care in Chapel Hill. And as soon as they went on their first official date that October, he knew she was the one. They got married less than eight months later.
His life was as good as he could have ever imagined it would be.
But they were about to face what both of them look back on today as “a pain,” Titus says, “that’s indescribable.”
Navigating yet more tragedies
The Hoppers knew early on that they wanted children.
What they didn’t know was how difficult — and how emotionally devastating — the pursuit of that goal could be.
During the first few years of their marriage, they lost five babies to miscarriages. The first time they got pregnant, of course, there was exuberance and excitement, followed soon after by the loss bringing heartbreak and tears. Each subsequent time, they’d feel less exuberance and excitement due and more concern, then a whole lot more heartbreak and tears with every loss.
On top of that, they started having trouble even conceiving.
It all became excruciating. They were both youth pastors at Faith Harvest by then, and while they were fine with older kids, Titus says he would avoid any situation that might require him to interact with a baby or a small child at church. He says he even declined an opportunity to be an elementary school principal.
But in an unusual twist of fate, one day a friend came to them out of the blue and asked for help. This friend knew a woman who was about to be evicted from her house and needed a place to stay; and this friend knew the Hoppers had the space, and good hearts. Titus asked few questions. He simply hitched his trailer to his truck and hustled over to meet her ... only to arrive to find the woman had not just two older children — but also a newborn baby.
For two weeks, the baby was in the Hoppers’ home. Initially, it was uncomfortable. By the end of the emergency stay, however, Titus and Michelle both felt like some healing had begun.
And although they continued to struggle to get pregnant a sixth time, Michelle worked up the courage at Faith Harvest’s New Year’s Eve service on the last day of 2015 and gave a testimonial to the congregation about her experiences with miscarriages. She then handed the microphone to Titus.
He hadn’t wanted to say anything. But, put on the spot, he said the only thing that popped into his mind: “By this time next year, I’ll be changing stinky diapers.”
It turned out he was right. Doubly so.
‘We call them our Irish twins’
Early in 2016, determined to be parents one way or another, the Hoppers began the process of trying to adopt.
Within a few short months, they were surprised to learn that they were finally pregnant again. This time, they decided to choose exuberance and excitement, to try to recapture what they’d felt so naturally back when they first started trying as newlyweds. To not walk on eggshells. To not simply expect the worst.
To their relief, it was smooth sailing all summer into the fall. But in November, they were thrown yet another curve ball — one that had nothing to do with the baby growing inside of Michelle.
Titus, then principal at Cleveland Early College High School in Shelby, was on lunch duty when his phone started buzzing with a text message from a woman who was familiar with their situation. He called her back, and was floored by what she had to say. “Our daughter’s pregnant. We’re in no position to have another child. She’s having a girl, due in February. We just wanted to call you guys and see if you would take this child.”
That night, he had a family meeting with Michelle and her parents. There was unanimous agreement. They would take in this baby.
First, though, their son Josiah was born — on Dec. 8, 2016, with the help of a transabdominal cerclage, a procedure used to strengthen the cervix. (Michelle had a rare cervix insufficiency: weak cervical tissue that can’t support a pregnancy and often leads to loss.)
Then on Jan. 22, 2017, they got the call that the girl’s mother was in labor. Within moments of Michelle arriving at the hospital their daughter, Lauryn, was born.
“We call them our Irish twins,” Titus says, proudly. “We don’t use the word ‘adopted’ in our house. As far as I’m concerned, they’re our twins. Our babies. Our gifts from God. All that we’ve been through, the Lord said, ‘I know you want a baby. I’m gonna give you two.’”
Every day, he says, he would look at his little ones and thank the Lord. Every day, he says, he would celebrate.
And in 2019, he found out someone else wanted to celebrate his children, too. The Hoppers were introduced by a friend to a Charlotte photographer who invited them to participate in a photo shoot tied to National Rainbow Baby Day, which every Aug. 22 celebrates babies born to parents who have suffered previous pregnancy losses.
The photographer, Charmekia Bias, went into the project hoping to capture the African American male perspective on these joys and pains.
She came out of it with some unexpected early Christmas cheer.
Picturing Hop as a Black Santa
Independent of that rainbow baby project, Bias had been on the lookout for a Black Santa she could use for Santa family photo sessions for Christmas 2019. She hadn’t seen it done in Charlotte and thought it would be something great to offer her clients.
She was having zero luck, though.
In fact, the night before the rainbow baby project, she remembers praying: Lord, please just send me a Black Santa...
The very next day, Titus showed up at her studio with all the other families. “I saw him,” Bias recalls, “and I was like, Oh my gosh, that is my Santa. But at the same time I was thinking, He’s young, but he’s graying. I don’t know if it’s gonna be an insult or not if I ask him to be Santa.”
That night, she decided to take the leap: She emailed Michelle and asked if she thought her husband would be open to it.
Within minutes, a reply came back: YES!
Before Bias even went to bed, she ordered a scenic backdrop and a Santa suit for Titus. Just two weeks later, they were in her studio doing a shoot to promote sessions with her new Black Santa. She says that as soon as she publicized the promo photo and announced the date, she was flooded with requests. “I reached out to him, I was like, ‘Uhh, Titus, uhhh, I think we are gonna need multiple days.’ (The ad) went viral before I could even do the sessions.”
Titus was, admittedly, a little unsure of it all at first. As a kid, he’d never encountered a Black Santa. In fact, for most of his life, when he thought of Santa, he thought of a fair-skinned white man with blue eyes and a red suit. It never really crossed his mind that Santa could be Black, he says, until he saw a news story in 2016 about the Mall of America hiring its first Black Santa.
But he was a natural, Bias says.
“The families who were coming in, they kept saying, ‘He’s just like family,’” she recalls. “Their kids were running to him. It was just unreal. And Titus’s background — being a pastor, being a middle-school principal — those things really helped him connect with kids of all ages. Even the parents were excited to see him. When we were younger, there wasn’t a Black Santa. So the adults wanted to get photos with him, too.”
They couldn’t repeat their success in 2020 due to the pandemic, but Titus started offering virtual Santa visits with kids and got connected to Jihan Woods, founder of the Find Black Santa app, broadening his reach.
So when the pandemic started subsiding, Bias — and many others — started calling again.
Hop The Black Santa was about to blow up.
The recipe for ‘a delicious cake’
Just a few of the many, many things Titus never anticipated when he first said yes to putting on the red suit:
The level of demand for his services. In just a few short years, it’s gotten to the point where Hop The Black Santa is fully booked for the holiday season before the end of the previous spring. Four of those days, by the way, belong to Bias, who says by season’s end they’ll have created portraits for 80 to 100 families together. (Also worth noting: Michelle, who is in healthcare management, suddenly also had a side hustle of her own, in charge of handling all things administrative for Hop The Black Santa.)
The reach. Families have flown across the country just to have portrait sessions with Hop. And vice-versa — families have flown him to them, for photos. He also has been hired to appear at private events hosted by celebrities including TV personality and actor Nick Cannon and model Brittany Bell, the mother of three of Cannon’s children; and social-media/comedy star LaLa Milan.
White families specifically requesting him, to which he says, “I think that has nothing to do with my color. That has all to do with my personality.”
Formal education, and expansion. This past spring, he attended the three-day Northern Lights Santa Academy in Atlanta. More recently, the Hoppers added two more Santas and two Mrs. Clauses to their team to help meet the demand. All four “Hop The Black Santa ambassadors” are also Black.
Meanwhile, in addition to his holiday side hustle, several other things have come to pass for Titus Hopper that at earlier points in his life he never would have envisioned.
For one, he says the older brother whom he merely “co-existed” with in their parents’ old house now lives in Hickory. They talk on a weekly basis, and he’ll be coming down for Christmas, Hopper says. “Our relationship is much better.”
He also in 2019 added to a busy schedule — which includes parenting, his role with Cleveland County Schools, his Santa-ing, and his executive pastor duties at Faith Harvest — by pursuing his doctorate of education in educational leadership at UNC Charlotte.
This past May, as he joined the small but growing percentage of African Americans who have earned doctorates in the U.S., he delivered the featured speech at UNC Charlotte’s Spring 2023 graduate commencement ceremony. Not long after that, the university tapped him as an adjunct professor; he now teaches a once-a-week class for grad students called “The Principalship.”
And, of course, he’s happier than ever to be around small children, whether it’s Christmastime or not. Back when he was dealing with the trauma of Michelle losing pregnancy after pregnancy, “Hold a baby? Mm-mm. Nope. Wouldn’t do it,” Titus says. “But now? Gimme that baby!”
So after all these unexpected gifts, how would he sum up his journey? He smiles as starts to try.
“Scripture puts it this way: ‘All things work together for good.’ And when I couple that with ‘The steps of a good man are ordered’ —” Hopper pauses, sighs, smiles again and restarts. “What I can tell you is: Vanilla flavor by itself? Terrible. Eggs by themselves are terrible. Flour, by itself? Terrible. But mix all that madness together, you got a delicious cake. ... You just gotta make sure you don’t take it out of the oven too soon, or you don’t leave it in there too long.
“That’s how I look at it, man. When I look back over my life, I have no regrets. I mean, I could be angry with God for taking my mom. I could be angry with God for taking my dad. I could be angry over so many things that happened in my life.
“But when I look at now? I’m happy. ... I am a happy man. And that’s by choice. I choose to be happy.”
“Oh, jolly, YES! BRO! HO! HO!,” he bellows. Then Hop The Black Santa laughs, and when he does, his belly shakes — dare we say — like a bowlful of jelly.