After 38 years on the job, Santa Luke still has time for everyone. Yes, you too
Somewhere in Maryland, there's a mantel with a framed photo of Santa with a raccoon on his lap.
That's the image that comes to mind as a longtime mall Santa tells me about one of his oddest visitors, long ago, on Pet Night.
"They wanted to take a picture of the raccoon with Santa," he says. "And you know, they love their raccoon. They brought the raccoon here. So, Santa took the picture."
And that sums up Santa Luke — not just any mall Santa, but one of the best to ever do it. He doesn't turn people away, or make them feel awkward. They come to him looking for something. And he wants to give it to them.
"Santa has experienced it all — in a positive way," he says.
His real name is Luke Durant, a man who is a legend in his own right at Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore. Some people drive for hours to see him. The raccoon story is one of many you might hear when you spend the day with Santa Luke, who is on his 39th year at this mall in West Baltimore.
"I get phone calls in August, wanting to know if Santa Luke is coming back," said Romaine Smallwood-Faison, the mall's general manager. "I'm like, this is crazy."
Santa is on the set
Watching Santa Luke handle kids and talk to families on a recent Friday, it's clear that he's a man who has a very particular set of skills. Kids' meltdowns don't fluster him. He's used to some children being overwhelmed. Above all, he listens and encourages the kids, telling them to do their best.
"You have to have a good heart," he says. "You have to know how to treat people the way you want to be treated. And you have to make people feel better after leaving you" than when they arrived.
Sitting in his big green chair in front of an immense tree, surrounded by decorations and large presents, Santa Luke waves and smiles at children, waggling his finger for them to come closer. It's been a slow day so far, with many kids still in school.
One family with three kids in tow makes it to the precipice, choosing a photo package with Santa Luke — but things abruptly unravel when one of the older children starts to cry. They head for the exit.
"He's a fast one, he'll try running," another mother says of her son, warning a helper not to let go of his shoulder.
Santa Luke and his team deploy props and squeaky toys to get kids to look at the camera. One little boy, adept in the mysterious ways of small children, refuses to smile unless his mother lets him hold a tube of Desitin diaper cream.
Smile for the camera
When it's picture time, Santa Luke has one of the best on-camera double finger-points I've seen since Ted Lange set the bar (literally) on The Love Boat.
Photo packages with Santa start around $39 and go up to $49. But any kid who walks by will see Durant wave them over. Because if they want to come see Santa Luke — paying customer or not — he wants to know what they want for Christmas.
Time and again, he does this thing that looks like a low-key piece of magic. Picture a grandfather and a boy standing at the gate of Santa's set, peering in. The granddad asks if it's OK if the boy just comes up to say hi — and Santa Luke gives a little pop of his fingers and a points to the kid, gesturing for him to step right up.
Durant's assistants watch the little boy whisper to Santa about Christmas — and then he zips back out, grabs his father's hand and they walk back into the mall. Versions of that scene played out again and again on my visit.
"I believe in what I'm doing," Durant says. "And I like doing it. It's not a job. I take great pride in what I do," and that means embracing people, he added.
Tiffaney Parkman's young son, Kensington White, can be quiet around strangers, but he has no problem telling Santa that he's been a good boy and what he wants for Christmas: "Numchuks" — like Michelangelo, his favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.
"I'm actually not from Maryland," Parkman says. "So when I had my son, I wanted to know where Santa was, and everyone talked about Santa Luke. So I found the mall. I found him. So we've been coming ever since he was born, minus the COVID year."
Also visiting is Ta'lynn White, a tween who came with her grandmother. Years ago, she cried the first time she saw Santa. Now, she expertly passes along a request.
"I want an iPad, a new phone case, and slime," she tells Santa.
How does Santa do it?
Durant got here today around 7 a.m. He won't leave until around 7 or 8 p.m. When I took this assignment, I wondered what Santa does on his break time (many mall Santas take a breather around 3 p.m.). Does he ice his lap? Wolf down cookies?
As it turns out, Santa Luke does not take breaks. Durant might snag a catnap in a slow spell, but he doesn't stray from his plush green chair. He stands up occasionally, and he nibbles a snack once in a while. But he doesn't have anything to drink, because he doesn't want to have to go to the bathroom: He can't bear the thought of a kid finding an empty Santa chair.
Durant largely stays in character on the Santa set, but there are hints of everyday life. In the hours we spend together, I notice he keeps a mirror in his boot, to make sure he looks his best. He also has a cellphone, but he doesn't surf the web: It's a vintage flip model.
When I ask about his daily routine, Durant says he drives to the mall and prays at the start of the day. He says he's never gotten a cold or or other illness from the kids. He and his team navigated through the safety measures required by COVID-19.
"Santa stays in tip-top shape," Durant says. "I take my vitamin C and drink plenty of water and get all the shots, flu shots and everything."
Durant has made headlines before, often with the focus on him being a Black Santa. But he wishes people weren't so preoccupied with race.
"I'm a colorblind Santa, so to speak," he says. "That's never entered my mind to be a Black Santa or whatever — I did Santa Claus to be a good Santa Claus."
I ask Durant how he felt to dress as Santa for the first time, years ago.
"It made me real proud," he says. "To wear this uniform — I don't call it a costume, this uniform — you have to wear it with pride."
Yes, Santa Luke has an origin story
Kay Adler, 84, used to come to Mondawmin Mall with her daughter and granddaughter. Today, she's here on her own — but that doesn't stop her from sitting on Santa Luke's lap, her salt-and-pepper ponytail sticking out the back of a ball cap.
"He's very unique," Adler said afterward, praising Durant's long run as Santa.
"I've been coming here for years," she said. "And when he had his candy store, I would always stop in here and buy some peppermint sticks."
She's referring to Durant's former family business, operating sweet shops in this mall and around Baltimore. And if you're keeping score, yes, that means Durant spent years essentially playing Willy Wonka for 11 months of the year, then Santa for one.
To Durant, being Santa is a duty — one that he tried to avoid: He got drafted into the Santa ranks 45 years ago. Back then, he and his late brother were running a restaurant and club in the historic Lafayette Market. The market had a Santa lined up for Christmas, but he quit.
Durant initially refused to play the part — but then his longtime business partner, a petite white woman named Tina Trainor, made good on her threat to dress as Santa.
"She was so cute, she had on the pillow and everything, and I loved that. I said, Tina, 'I can't let you do it. I'll be the Santa Claus.' And the rest is history."
Mondawmin Mall is in its latest iteration
Mondawmin Mall dominates an area between Coppin State University to the west and the Maryland Zoo and Druid Hill Park to the east. Blocks of historic row houses fill in the gaps. A bustling Metro station sits along the edge of its parking lot.
This mall has gone through a number of rebirths since its opening in 1956 — even its first developer was associated with the term "urban renewal."
It started as an open complex with a sitting area for people to take a break from shopping. Then it was enclosed. Dozens of stores came and went, from Sears to Target and Forever 21.
Walking around the mall, I'm struck by how it's essentially shifting back to its original identity of a walkable shopping village — a model that's now back in fashion. The complex, currently owned by Brookfield, contains a supermarket and post office, just as it did decades ago. New mixed-use construction is planned in the space left by a vacated Target.
"Isn't it amazing how life is so circular and it just goes around and we're back to where we were?" Smallwood-Faison says. "People have this perception that malls are dying. This is not happening, especially in our Brookfield portfolio, because we're able to pivot and make the change that will accommodate the communities, even if we have to go back to what we did before."
Mondawmin Mall has also been an emblem of some of Baltimore's most challenging moments. The National Guard set up a machine gun emplacement here during the 1968 riots. After Freddie Gray's death in police custody in 2015, police officers in riot gear had a showdown with students in the parking lot.
After white flight started in the 1950s, Mondawmin became a home for the Black middle class. That didn't stop one of the mall's original tenants, the White Coffee Pot diner, from refusing seats to Black customers.
Now Smallwood-Faison, a Black woman, is running a mall that used to have a segregated store.
"How about that?" she says. A lifelong Baltimorean, she adds, "I used to come through Mondawmin Mall as a child when the subway first was created in Baltimore. I'm amazed every day that I'm running the mall. It is amazing."
Today, Mondawmin is decked out for a big holiday shopping rush. Decorations hang from walls and ceilings, and stores look well-stocked. And while it might not have a splashy anchor store, the mall has Santa Luke.
Smallwood-Faison says she recently spent part of her day sitting in the Santa set, watching people come for their annual pictures.
"It just does my heart so good to see families of generations come back and bring their families here."
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