Luke Durant's six-year run as Santa Claus at Mondawmin Mall in West Baltimore has been a roller-coaster ride of memories.
They range from warm thoughts of youngsters jumping on his lap and tugging on his beard to see if he's the real Santa. But he also has painful recollections of seeing children each year who he knows will get few, if any, Christmas gifts.
Mr. Durant, who is 45, is a fair-skinned African-American serving a mostly black part of the city and has discovered an unexpected strain of racism doing his seasonal work.
Each year, Mr. Durant, who lives in the city's Northwest area and who works at a family-run candy store in the mall, has started the Santa season at about 300 pounds and, because of the costume and padding, has lost about 50 pounds before Dec. 25. On Friday, Mr. Durant expects to retire as Santa Claus. He hopes his son continues the tradition.
QUESTION: What's the best thing about being Santa?
ANSWER: Making the kids feel good. You've got to keep their hope alive. Give them positive messages. Don't promise too much, but let them know there's more to life than just violence.
A kid might who might be an abused kid may come to you; you don't know that. But you've to make that kid feel good and know there's something else besides the abuse. Not positive black vibes, or positive white vibes, or positive Hispanic vibes -- just positive vibes.
Q: Is it more important to make inner-city kids feel important than the county kids?
A: No. You have to make them all feel special.
A child is a child. I don't care if it's the poorest kid on the block or the richest kid, when he leaves us he's going to feel good.
Q: Ever talk to a kid that you felt would not get anything for Christmas?
A: Yeah. You can just tell. They say, "Santa, you missed me, what happened last year? You missed me."
I say, "I'm so sorry." But you make sure you get the kid's address, and sometimes you can direct them to Santa Claus Anonymous.
Q: Do youngsters still ask for a lot of things?
A: Yes. But you can't promise. You let them know that you'll do the best you can. Sometimes a kid is asking for a lot of things and the parent is looking at you, and the parent will give you the sign that everything is OK.
Q: Do children ever ask for non-material things?
A: Most people think it's just want, want, want. It's want, but it's also "please don't forget Mama," or "don't forget my little brother." There are a lot of nice kids out there.
But one little girl got to me. She asked if I could bring her mother back. She was about 5 or 6 years old. She said her mother was killed a week or two ago. She was pretty strong.
I said I can't help you on that, but I promise you one thing -- you'll see your Mom again.
Q: Do many kids ask for toy guns?
A: No. Just one asked so far this year.
The parent was embarrassed, too, when the young boy said, "Santa, I want a gun."
The parent said, "No, no, no, there won't be any guns. Santa doesn't want to hear that."
Q: What did you say to the child?
A: I said, "You don't need a gun. Your parents are right; you don't even want to start that." And that was it.
Q: Does that mean children aren't asking for toys of violence this year? And if so, why?
A: There's a definite change. All of the violent toys -- the swords, knives, guns, machine guns, machetes or whatever, have been replaced by bicycles, baseballs, basketballs, tennis shoes and your Ninja turtles.
It's happening because of the news media, the community organizations, churches making people aware that that's not the way to go. It's finally hitting home to the younger set.
Q: Do kids ever ask you about a black or white Santa?
A: Very seldom. It's the parents, not the kids.
Santa's a nonracial entity. But some people don't look at it that way, and it's bad like that. Kids are little people who will be big people whose minds become warped at a certain age.
I've experienced racism -- black racism -- from my people as Santa. Some parents get mad. Some people are caught up on this color thing. And it's sad, because black people are in all shades.
I've had a lot of problems with people who think I'm white, so
therefore, I don't wear gloves so they'll see -- and I think [that having to do such a thing] is bad. I really do.
You're not dark enough, you're not light enough. I'm caught in between.
Q: Do parents say things to you?
A: They'll be looking, and they'll stare, and they'll ask [Santa's helpers] is he white, or whatever?
You've got all kinds of black Santa Clauses in life, and you've got all different shades of black people. America is the great melting pot, too. You're going to have Hispanic Santa Clauses, Korean Santa Clauses.
It's a shame when people are still hung up on this color thing; it's the work of the devil. It's terrible. I love black folk, but sometimes, we're hard on each other.
Q: Will the concept of Santa Claus stand the test of time?
A: As long as you have kids, you'll have Santa Claus. It's good to keep some of these fantasies and hopes alive.
Q: Do you play Santa Claus for the money?
A: I donate the money to families of the children and charity. You give from the heart.
Q: Will you miss being Santa?
A: I will. I really think I'm Santa Claus sometimes. It's scary.