Growing up, Charlotte Lewis loved everything about Christmas. “My mum always made Christmas very special for myself and my siblings – it was something that was quite important to her,” the 37-year-old recalls.
A former primary school teacher, her mum would decorate the house and take them all, wide-eyed and excited, to see Santa. Lewis recalls that coming from a Caribbean background, there was always a huge focus on food, too.
“That was such a big part of what Christmas is all about – it was a real amalgamation of what is typically British and Caribbean mixed together,” she says.
But entering adulthood, and especially after having a daughter of her own, Lewis realised there was something missing from the Christmas experience: she and her family didn’t feel represented in a lot of the mainstream celebrations, from the festive merchandise found in shops to the Santa at their local grotto.
“I took my daughter to a couple of really nice [Father Christmas] experiences at farms and one at a shopping centre, and they were absolutely fine,” says Lewis. “But when I looked around there was no merchandise, there were no cards, there was no wrapping paper that represented who my family is.
“And I just thought: there’s something missing from this experience and I don’t feel like my family’s Christmas experience is being represented in this space.
“We all deserve to be represented – especially in imaginary settings, where children’s formative years are so important to their imagination, how they feel about themselves and confidence. To me, it felt like there was a piece missing from the picture.”
Fast forward to now and Lewis, who has a daughter aged six and a son aged three, is running a sell-out Christmas grotto called Noir Kringle, which focuses on the Black British festive experience.
Complete with a Black Santa, Black elves and merchandise representing Black people – from elves of colour, to Christmas cards featuring Black families, and Black ballerina snowglobes – the Shoreditch-based grotto is exceedingly popular among families of all backgrounds.
“To me it isn’t about putting a Black man in a Santa suit, it’s about trying to encapsulate what Black British culture means – and that is the essence of what we’re trying to do at the event,” she says.
From the food, to the songs, to the overall feeling – it’s as much for the children as it is for the parents, who are left feeling nostalgic about their own festive experiences growing up.
In the five years since first launching, Lewis has noticed an interesting shift in the people attending her grotto – which she runs alongside her mum, who worked with kids for 25 years and now adoringly plays the part of Mrs Kringle.
“As we’ve grown and as the years go on, the audience is changing. When we first started it was about a 95% Black audience, but as the event is evolving and the merchandise is evolving, the audience is changing – we’re getting lots of mixed-heritage families,” she says.
“And that is really interesting because I think people are just wanting to diversity their Christmas, even if they’re not from a Black culture.”
She adds the grotto was “never a segregation project” and instead has always been about trying to “emulate something and change the narrative and make Black children feel seen – and if they’re not Black, for them to learn more about Black culture and what we’re all about”.
Noir Kringle launched in 2019 and has since opened its doors to the public four times – in 2020, they couldn’t open due to the Covid-19 lockdown, so she launched a range of merchandise to keep the magic alive at home.
Their bestselling item, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a range of ‘Elves for December’. “When we looked online, there were elves of colour but they had very straight noses, very straight hair, and they were essentially the same ones but painted Black,” says Lewis.
“From my perspective, I wanted the hair texture to be similar to what my children resonate with, I wanted them to look a certain way, and that’s kind of why they came about.”
The entrepreneur, who lives in Kent with her partner, 38, has been blown away by how popular the experience is – they’re releasing grotto tickets in two sittings this year and the first lot sold out in 31 minutes.
She expects the second batch of tickets, released on November 3, to do the same. “The amount of people on our subscription list and waiting list is over six times the amount of the tickets we have available,” she says. “We’ve had to implement a queuing system as the website crashes when we do a ticket release.”
Some parents have likened it to getting Beyoncé tickets, which Lewis chuckles about. But on a serious note, she’s hoping to get financial backing next year so they can move to a bigger venue and open the grotto for a longer period of time, allowing more children to visit.
“It’s not a matter of whether it will sell or whether it will grow, I’m just trying to find the right people and companies to help me push that and allow it to be on for the whole of December and beyond,” she adds.
“I would love for it to be accessible to many more people but I’m trying my hardest to get the backing that I need to be able to do that.”
The mum-of-two is proud of the venture and the impact it has on families, but most of all, she loves seeing the reaction from her own children when they visit – even though she admits one of the “hardest parts” has been trying to keep the magic alive for them while hiding what goes on behind the scenes.
“They absolutely love it,” she says. “It’s so special to watch them enjoy that, because the whole reason I started it was to change things for them.”