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.