I was a mall Santa: Heartfelt exchanges between St. Nick and children

Tim Skillern
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Santa will stuff the usual suspects—Lego, American Girl dolls, iPods/iPads/iPhones and Wiis—into his sleigh on Christmas Eve, but it’s the intangible wishes that stand out on his list.

At an Exton, Pa., shopping center this year, Santa (known to non-believers as 44-year-old IT professional Steve Daggs) shared with Kimberly Morgan, a freelance writer who interviewed Daggs this month, an especially heartfelt visit he had with a child.

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In his own words:

A little girl, probably no more than 7 or 8, asked me to stop all of the terrible violence in the world. From the look on her parents' faces, this was not a planned request. I have to believe it was a result of recent events, and I did my best to assure her that I would do all I could to ensure that everyone will have the opportunity to enjoy their gifts and spend time playing with their friends and family.

I explained that my goal as Santa was to get people to realize that celebrating the joy we find in each other is the best gift of all, and that each of us has a bit of Santa in our hearts when we undertake the goal of making someone we love smile the biggest smile ever.

If I had my way, we would give gifts all the time, and take a moment every day to play.

I explained that even though she stated that she did not want any gifts for herself, just peace for others, that I would still make sure that she had lots of wonderful presents to open up Christmas morning, so that she could share her smile with her family.

I wanted to cry as I passed her a token candy cane and wished Merry Christmas to her shell-shocked parents as they departed the carriage.

Children are our future, and they hold magic in their hearts. I take on the role of Santa so that I may help foster that magic, and occasionally, like that little girl, they share their magic with me.

Daggs, along with his wife, Jennifer/Mrs. Claus, and his daughter/"Jingle the Elf," is in his second season as Santa Claus in Exton, a town northwest of Philadelphia. (Read more of his interview.) His story is one that Yahoo! News collected through interviews and first-person accounts this month with Santa—he of the mall or other festive location variety. While hopes for the hot toys top most lists, the stories these Santas recall are more important than gift-giving. Here are some excerpts.

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Santa celebrates Christmas—and survival

In Chattanooga, Tenn., Santa Claus celebrated his 14th "birthday" last Monday, at the peak of the holiday season. On Dec. 10, 1998, Santa (known around these parts as Richard Bonnington) lost his left leg in a severe car accident. He nearly lost his right leg, too, spent three months in the hospital and 10 in rehabilitation.

"I know I shouldn't have survived,” he told Juniper Russo, a freelance writer who interviewed him for a story she wrote this week. “It took them three hours to cut me out of my car."

So, every year since, he greets the season with a celebration of survival.

Writes Russo:

Thanks to prosthetics, kids don't notice or comment on the fact that Santa Claus is missing a limb. They climb into his lap year after year, with sparkling eyes full of magic and wonder, and would never guess that Jolly Old Saint Nick came face-to-face with his own mortality not so long ago. For Bonnington, it's this innocent, childlike idealism that makes his career as Santa so rewarding.

"It's the contact with the kids," Bonnington sighs wistfully, "The ones that really believe in Christmas and in Santa… And, of course, the babies are always so special."

At his candy-cane-and-evergreen office, Santa's Northshore Workshop in a mall in Chattanooga, he's spent the last three years getting to know local children and their families. This real-world Santa Claus has had an opportunity to watch many children grow up one year at a time, and he says he finds every experience rewarding and joyful.

Of course, many children hope and believe that Santa's gifts can extend to the immaterial... and the heartbreaking. Bonnington recalls one year, when a little girl sat in his lap. He cheerfully asked her what she wanted for Christmas, and she replied, "I want my grandpa to have a better life in Heaven than he had here on Earth." Bonnington explained to her that even Santa's magic doesn't extend everywhere, but that we all have the power to pray for those we love.

Read more of Russo’s story about Bonnington.

Looking past the nauseated, greedy kids

Arrivanna Brooks was a mall Santa in 2002 in Rochester, N.H., hired because the mall wanted a female Santa, seeing her safer and less creepy (the mall had fielded complaints about male Santas in the past) for the kids and parents.

She worked one month, 25 hours a week, and nights and weekends for $9 an hour. And most of the kids weren’t ideal, selfless or charming. She writes in a first-person story for Yahoo! News: “One girl spent 10 minutes naming every item on aisle 10 of Toys R Us on her Christmas list. [Another] almost puked on me because she had eaten a slushy drink that made her nauseous. A boy kicked me because he did not think that I was really Santa Claus. You have to appreciate their, er, honesty.”

The heavy belly, white beard, glasses, gloves, boots, a coat and thick pants made her hot and uncomfortable. She says she went through at least one stick of deodorant each week. The mall’s fluorescent lights irritated her eyes.

“My mom told me to suck it up,” Brooks, 19 at the time, says.

She remembers one altruistic wish from a girl that helped her do so.

“One little girl wanted her brother to be able to come home from the hospital,” she says. “She had said that he was sick and all she wanted was him back home. A boy asked if he could see his grandma again because she had went to heaven.”

Read more of Brooks’ story.

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‘A dark cloud over Christmas’

In 1990, Michael Taylor donned a Santa costume in the face of disaster. That year, Taylor was living near Hilo on the east side of Hawaii’s Big Island with his family, including his 7- and 6-year-old boys, when he agreed to the part-time gig at a mall in Hilo.

But that year “a dark cloud over Christmas,” as he calls it, rolled over the island. Lava from eruptions of Kīlauea Volcano destroyed and buried most of the nearby town of Kalapana.

“All of us tried to keep our holiday cheer, but [rather than presents] many of the kids asked for Santa to help keep their homes safe,” Taylor writes in his first-person story.

He says the children made the most of the uncertain situation (singing, of course, “Mele Kalikimaka,” among other carols). The grown-ups tried to put a good face on the disaster, claiming that the volcano goddess, Pele, never rested in her expansion of the island.

Read more of Taylor’s story.

A difficult Christmas for military children

Air Force veteran Dave Masko remembers subbing for a sick mall Santa in 1998 on a military base in Germany and not imagining it’d be that difficult.

After all, he writes, “I thought one just puts on the Santa costume and yells, ‘Ho, ho, ho!’ along with, ‘What would you like for Christmas?’ I was wrong.”

It was fun for Masko—for about 10 minutes—until the first child approached him, and he learned these children, many who were tugged around the globe because of their parents’ military careers, weren’t the typical weekend mall kids.

“The difficult role for me as this accidental Santa was listening to the kid's stories. After all, these were children of active-duty military members stationed overseas. Although the location was Germany—and Germany is stunningly wonderful in the snow and during Christmas—it was still away from home,” Masko says. “Thus, many of the kids who spoke to me as Santa said they wished they could visit their grandma or another relative.

“Many of their moms and dads were away from home at their base and deployed to some hot spot in the Middle East or elsewhere. It was hard for any overseas mall Santa to bring comfort to these kids who were simply afraid for their parents in harm's way.”

Read more of Masko’s story.