When he was growing up near Mondawmin Mall and the Christmas season rolled around, Andrew Dubose rarely missed a chance to visit the old man in the red suit and white beard who always gave him such a warm holiday greeting.
Now 39, married, and the father of three, Dubose drives his children from the family's home in Randallstown so they can sit with the same man in exactly the same spot — Lucas Durant, the longest-running black Santa Claus in Baltimore.
"Santa loves you," Durant, 65, tells Dubose's children, Jasmine, 15; Mason, 2; and Drew, 6 months, as he did their father decades ago.
"Santa Luke," as he's known, has been Kriss Kringle at Mondawmin Mall for 29 years running. For many, dropping in for his hugs and ho-ho-hos is an intergenerational ritual, and not just because he, like the Duboses, is African-American.
"I do think it's important for my kids to see someone of their own culture — not that I wouldn't take a picture with him if he were white," Dubose says. "He's a kind man, and that's what we care about."
This season has been an acrimonious one when it comes to Santa Claus, especially concerning a question that has rarely been asked as openly as it has this year: Why is the familiar Christmas icon nearly always portrayed as a Caucasian?
Last week, a blogger at Slate, Aisha Harris, raised the question by writing that the practice of presenting Santa as "an old white male" can shame black children and should be changed. The column rankled Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, who called the idea "ridiculous" and sniffed on the air that "Santa just is white."
Reverse racism; white privilege; political correctness. From CNN and Time to the Gawker website, the media have been abuzz with charges and countercharges since.
To "Santa Luke," that kind of talk is as welcome as the proverbial lump of coal.
"Sometimes people write or say things just to stir things up," says Durant, 65, the white fringe of his hat nestled on his spectacles. "All this mess about color — it's divisive. I even think it's evil. Santa Claus is color blind. Only one question should be important: What's in his heart?"
Durant grew up not far from where Mondawmin now stands, in a home where he says his parents taught the sort of attitude toward ethnicity suggested in Romans 10:12: "For there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile; for the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him."
His parents also taught him and his brother, Dexter, the confidence that led them to business success. They started a nightclub, The Brothers Two, in the late 1960s and ran it through 1979, when they started the first of five successful Somethin' Good stores, businesses that sold sweets like kettle corn and peanut brittle.
An early employee was a young Jada Pinkett, the future film star; one loyal customer was the first President George Bush, who bought candy apples when he was in town.
Durant says he worked with "people of all colors" and "never, never, never bought into pitting people against each other over race. I believe in judging a man by the content of his character, not the color of his skin."
He brought the belief to his second career. He started as a Santa at Lafayette Market, where he was the market's president, at the urging of his business partner, a petite Caucasian woman named Tina Trainor who tried to be the jolly icon but "just couldn't pull off the look."
Durant was such a natural with children that he started getting offers from other sites, including the Mall in Columbia, which invited him to become their first African-American Santa in 1983, with Dexter in tow as occasional replacement.
Both wondered how a mostly white customer base would receive them. They were pleasantly surprised.
Occasionally a family might look startled at first, the brothers recall, but Santa Luke learned that if he reached out naturally and warmly, the issue disappeared like smoke up a Christmas chimney.
"Win the kids, and you win the parents. If there's a story to that, it's that everyone was nice," he says.
In contrast to Columbia, the customers at Mondawmin were and are mostly black, which one might think would make things easier even for an African-American like Durant.
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.