I don’t know what they do during the rest of the year, but every November hordes of old men descend on American malls dressed like Santa Claus. I don’t know if they’re retired or bored — maybe there’s a lot of money wrapped up in this whole Saint Nick racket — but something drives these people to sit in costume by food courts and wait for the long lines of children to form.
Well, instead of letting this jolly old archetype get too comfortable, I thought I’d keep him on his toes this year. So I went to some malls and reviewed Santas.
I judged each local Santa on his appearance (based on what a 5-year-old said was appropriate), what he was eating (they’re hungry fat people), the gift he gave and the price for the experience.
I didn’t have enough money to pay to sit on all of their laps, so I picked the best one. For the rest, I just spied on them through the decorated trees.
How to Judge the Santas
I had a conversation with my friend Francine Blase (she’s 5 years old) about “Santa’s helpers” at the mall to help me figure out some of the criteria on which to judge these impersonators. Francine is aware that these men are not the actual Santa Claus (who must not be seen by human eyes), but, she says, they’re in fact Santa’s messengers who deliver children’s wishes to the North Pole.
First off, Francine deduced that these men, who live in one of Santa’s six attics during the non- Christmas season, dress like Santa because Santa is “really secret.” They all live in Santa’s brick house together because it would be too hot in those fur suits to live anywhere but the North Pole. They don’t actually like living there. And the furry white part of those suits might or might not be made of dyed reindeer hide.
When they aren’t working at the mall, she says, these Santas spend the rest of the year shopping for presents.
Francine says the most important thing for these helpers is that they need to dress like Santa in a big red suit, a big red hat and a long white beard. They also need to let you sit on their lap, and they probably need to eat magic food like cookies and reindeer skin to squeeze out the magic. The real Santa squeezes the magic out of food so he can fly. I don’t know if these helpers have the gift of flight.
So the criteria, based on Francine’s personal opinion are: costume, facial hair, food and friendliness.
Kenwood Towne Centre
7875 Montgomery Road, Kenwood, 513- 745-9100 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday; noon-6 p.m. Sunday
SUIT: The whole nine yards. He had a velvety red suit, black belt, black boots, white fur lining and white gloves. He also had on a red hat and wire rimmed glasses.
BEARD: His own. Very white and long.
WEIGHT: Moderate. I wouldn’t say he wasn’t round, but I’m not sure he was fat enough to be considered jolly.
FOOD: This Santa was eating, no joke, a cookie from Blue Chip. He also had a Diet Lipton iced tea.
VOICE: He said, “Ho! Ho! Ho!”
AUTHENTICITY: This Santa is believable, although I saw him making a call on a cell phone. I doubt the real Santa uses cell phones. He can fly.
GIFT: A coloring book.
HELPERS: He was surrounded by photo people in white turtlenecks and black aprons. My friend said that it was hard to tell them apart from food court workers.
LOCATION: He’s right by the food court. This was the only Santa with a fireplace, which I think adds something to his believability. He was sitting in a big green chair surrounded by fake trees. The setting wasn’t that impressive.
They had weird funhouse mirrors, which is more Halloween than Christmas.
PRICE: 5-by-7 photographs start at $14.99 and prices go up to $29.99.
11700 Princeton Pike, Springdale, 513-671-0590 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Wednesday; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; noon-6 p.m. Sunday
SUIT: He went the Old Saint Nick route. Very traditional. His robe was much longer, like down to his knees, and he had on a gold-flecked vest. He was also wearing a red hat, white gloves and glasses.
BEARD: His own. It was more of a yellowish-white than a snow white.
WEIGHT: In keeping with his more old-school look, this guy was thin. He was tall and slight of build.
FOOD: He was drinking a smoothie.
VOICE: Friendly and warm.
AUTHENTICITY: This guy was the best Santa ever. He actually let me sit on his lap and asked what I wanted for Christmas. I told him I wanted a queen-sized bed (Mom, I hope you’re reading this). He took me seriously, which I appreciated. He didn’t make me feel like a “wacky” adult with a bad sense of humor who thinks Santa photos are hilarious to give to all of my friends for Christmas.
GIFT: A bell. When Santa gave me the bell, he asked if I had read The Polar Express. I said yes. I guess if I can hear the bell it means I’ll believe in magic and Santa forever.
HELPERS: Apparently elves aren’t P.C., so every Santa has photo people in aprons instead. These women were nice and were wearing red, which was a better aesthetic decision than the white turtlenecks.
LOCATION: Wow, they really went all out with this one. The area in the middle of the mall by the waterfalls was converted into his winter wonderland. He’s the only Santa with a Christmas tree, a big one, right behind him. There were even animatronic dogs and other animals stuck in the snow and trees. It smelled good, too. It was glittery and impressive. The people who designed that set really took the time to make it feel magical. He was sitting in a green chair like the other Santas, but his seemed better.
PRICE: I paid $26 for a photo CD, which is a great deal because you get different sizes and you can e-mail them to your friends and family or print them yourself
4601 Eastgate Blvd., Eastgate, 513-752-2290 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday; noon-6 p.m. Sunday
SUIT: Typical Santa stuff. He suit was red, but it wasn’t as plush as the Santa’s from the KTC.
BEARD: His own. White. This guy had the best beard out of the five Santas. It was long but very full.
WEIGHT: Fat. This guy was authentically huge.
FOOD: He was drinking a Big Gulp.
VOICE: He was mostly into giving high fives.
AUTHENTICITY: The thing that this Santa had going for him was his weight.
GIFT: A letter to Santa, which I find redundant.
HELPERS: They were also in black aprons, but one of them was wearing sweat pants, which I wasn’t into.
SETTING: This was sort of like the KTC. He had some evergreen bear topiaries and an interesting color scheme: red, purple, green and gold. I liked the purple. He was also in a big green chair. What’s up with the big green chairs? Is it because Santa wears red? I had never been to this mall before. Did you know it was carpeted? It was like being in an airport full of very aggressive kiosk workers. There was an Orange Julius stand, which I had never seen before, and they had a carousel in the food court that was really cool.
PRICE: This place was the cheapest. Prices started at $10.99 for a 5-by-7.
2028 Florence Mall Dr., Florence, 859-371-1231 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday; noon-6 p.m. Sunday
SUIT: This guy switched it up by wearing more modern square-framed wire glasses with the traditional suit.
BEARD: Trimmed and sculpted. Hulk Hogan’s stache plus a beard.
WEIGHT: Old person fat.
FOOD: None! Give this man a cookie.
VOICE: This Santa didn’t speak much. He was a good listener.
AUTHENTICITY: He was believable up until the point where he got out of his chair so a dad could sit in it and take some Christmas photos with his kid. I don’t know what kind of Christ complex that dad had, but dude, you aren’t Santa. Get out of his chair. Also, Santa, don’t be a pussy. Just cause some guy is paying you $25 doesn’t mean you have to get up and pose with a playful thumbs up behind the guy and his kids.
GIFT: This guy gives coloring books, too. Not original.
HELPERS: These people had to wear shiny green vests. This made them look more elven, which I appreciated because Santa has elves. That’s just the truth.
SETTING: First off, WTF? Florence Mall is huge. I don’t know if it’s because I’m from the Kenwood area, but I always assumed the Kenwood Towne Centre was the best and most important mall ever. All the stores that ever closed in the KTC (like the Disney Store) still exist in Florence, and their food court has a bi-level carousel and a Currito! Santa is on the lower level by JCPenny propped up all jolly in a chinsy-looking green velvet chair flanked by two giant mice (statues, not real) in soldier outfits. I’m assuming these are from The Nutcracker or something. He also has a large Christmas tree.
9501 Colerain Ave., Colerain, 513-385-5600 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday; noon-6 p.m. Sunday
SUIT: This Santa enjoyed flair. Instead of the boring old red and white hat, he decided to pin a piece of holly to the front of it. Festive. At first I thought it was mistletoe, which would have seemed mildly inappropriate.
BEARD: Yellow-white, but definitely his own facial hair. His hair hair was the same color, but it was trimmed/buzzed very short in the back. I was under the impression that Santa has long hair.
VOICE: I didn’t get close enough to listen (see below).
AUTHENTICITY: This was freaky! Santa and his helpers saw me spying on him with my notebook out so they started spying on me! It was an unsavory turn of events, which led to me to believe that this man doesn’t have the powers of omniscience that most Santas claim to possess.
GIFT: A crown that looked like it was from Burger King.
SETTING: Santa was behind a white picket fence, surrounded by that really cheap looking sparkly puff snow stuff. That crafting fluff was a tragic decision because the rest of his place was an animatronic village filled with tiny elves who looked just like him. All the buildings were called things like “Jingle Bell Station,” and a giant train that kids can actually ride does a loop around the “village.” There are tiny polar bears see-sawing and elves riding reindeer. This guy was sitting on a bench, not a green chair, in front of a sled with giant jingle bells in it. I must say that this was a refreshing change of pace from the typical sitting arrangement. You could sit beside him if you wanted to and not directly on top of him.