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Thursday, Dec. 4, 2003 02:20 pm

A day in Whoville

To kids, some things just don’t matter

Somebody’s happy to see Santa. And somebody’s happy to be Santa.

Growing up in Springfield, Mike Wallace remembers going to see Santa every Christmas season at Kmart. He may have also seen Santa downtown a time or two, in some store off the plaza. But Kmart was the annual tradition.

Wherever Wallace went, though, the Santa Clauses he saw looked like the same jolly old elf that appeared in books, on television, in movies and parades, on greeting cards, wrapping paper, tree ornaments, sweaters, neckties, candles, yard art, paper napkins, candy wrappers, stickers, stationery, and calendars -- red suit, black boots, white skin.

So Wallace didn't know quite what to think when his phone rang last week and somebody asked if he would be willing to play Santa at White Oaks Mall. His immediate reaction was, well, how would that be - ahem -- taken?

"You don't know what a lot of kids are used to," Wallace says. "A lot of kids are taught certain people look a certain way."

He was afraid he would disappoint or confuse the children. He was afraid they might think he wasn't "real." He was afraid they might say: "You're not Santa Claus. You're black!"

But as it turned out, the children didn't care.

"Half those kids must've put their arms out to give me a hug. They saw Santa and their arms just opened up," Wallace says. "You can't teach a kid to do that; that's just something they naturally do."

Families of all colors brought their children to sit on Wallace's knee and get their picture taken. The few kids who were scared seemed to be scared of Wallace's beard and his sheer bulk -- his friends call him "big Mike" -- rather than anything else. One little girl did mention, "Hey, you weren't black last year!"

But most kids had more urgent questions for Santa. Questions like, "Where are the reindeer?" and "What do you feed them?"

Once he got passed the matter of melanin, Wallace discovered something magical about being Santa: It made his eyes water and his heart swell.

"It's not like I'm a grinch -- I'm nothing like a grinch -- but the only way I could come close to describing it is what happened to the grinch in Whoville," Wallace says. "He got this big heart and he got happy and nothing else mattered. And that's exactly how I felt."

Wallace is now back to his regular job as a remittance processor at Illinois National Bank. His tenure in the Santa suit has come and gone. Black Santa gets just one day at the mall; a more traditional-looking Santa serves the rest of the time. But Wallace is already looking forward to Christmas 2004, hoping that he will once again get the call.

"The crazy thing is, while I was doing that, it was almost like being in Utopia," he says.

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