In the early years, that wasn't always so. Some black parents frowned, grabbed their children and took a wide berth around him, he says, and others made cutting remarks.

To them, apparently, St. Nick was a white emblem, his act a sort of betrayal.

"It's always the grown-ups who worry about it," he says.

His response: to be the best Santa he can be no matter the customer. "It's a serious responsibility when you put on that red suit, to show people the joy and the love Santa represents" Durant says, adding that his goal is to leave the visitor feeling better than when he or she arrived.

If Monday was an indication, he pretty much bats a thousand. Wary children approached, fell under his spell almost immediately, and had to be tugged away by parents. Teens sat as he dispensed life advice ("fail to plan, plan to fail.") Grown-ups shared marital and financial problems. Seniors sat down for a visit.

"Come give Santa a hug," he told members of each group, and most complied. "Good things come to those who wait," he told others. "Santa loves you," he said time and again.

In her Slate column, "Santa An Old White Man? Not Anymore," Harris, an African-American recalled growing up with "two Santas," the jolly white one she usually saw at school and in malls and the black one, her father, she saw at home.

"I remember feeling slightly ashamed that our black Santa wasn't the 'real thing,'" she wrote. "Isn't it time that our image of Santa better serve all the children he delights each Christmas?"

Not everyone agrees. Frank Bradley, a white man from Annapolis who portrays Santa, sees discussion of what race Santa should be as "political correctness going overboard," the work of "race baiters."

The kids who visit him are white, black and Hispanic, he says, and "don't care that I'm white. They run up and hug me and I hug them. Their idea of Santa is not a black guy with a fake beard. [But] it's not a white guy with a fake beard, either."

Sheri Parks, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland and an African-American, said she told her now-grown daughter that "Santa Claus was the spirit of Christmas," and that meant Santa could look different.

Still, she says, seeing Santas of different races can be affirming for minority children, in the same way that they benefit from having teachers of different races.

Durant isn't buying. He feels the best way to deal with racial problems is not to fall into the "trap" of defining each other by external color, but to find what human beings have in common and build on that.

The lines to visit him start before he begins at 11, and they rarely go away completely. He sees between 200 and 400 people a day, lets most people stay as long as they wish, and says he rarely encounters impatient people.

If a parent mentions race, he's happy to suggest that Santa can change colors at will. "Don't you believe in magic?" he'll ask. He's been at what he calls his ministry so long that many parents sat with him as kids and are now bringing a new generation.

Other shopping areas, Security Square Mall and Reisterstown Road Plaza, have employed African-American Santas in the past, but Romaine Smoot, the mall's general manager, has never heard of another one that has a black St. Nick on duty full time through the holidays.

"Plenty of our customers do want their children to be able see a Santa Claus who looks like them," she says.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com