In mid-November, Christmas carols were pumping through the speakers at Quaker Bridge Mall, and decorations of tinsel, evergreen and brightly colored ornaments reminded shoppers that the holidays quickly approached.
On Nov. 8, the mall’s guest of honor made his grand entrance in front of a crowd of cheering children before taking his seat in the Christmas wonderland constructed in front of Macy’s.
For the past eight years, this particular Santa Claus has been the centerpiece of the Christmas display at Quaker Bridge Mall.
“Ho ho ho!” he calls out merrily to wide-eyed children being wheeled by in strollers. “It’s good to see you this year!”
Even behind the long white curls of his beard, Santa’s broad smile is as visible as ever, and his crinkly eyes peer over gold-rimmed spectacles to gaze out at the shoppers buzzing by in the mall.
“This time of year, it’s like a cloud that’s out there that makes people happy,” he said. “And as Christmas gets closer, people get happier. There’s a lot of magic to the purpose of Christmas and Santa Claus in particular because he brings that joy to everybody. And it’s a lot of fun to watch the people enjoy themselves.”
Of course, most of the season’s excitement can be found in the children, who have eagerly been making lists and often can’t contain their enthusiasm as they wait in line to see the man with all the toys. However, Santa noted, it’s not toys that are topping Christmas lists anymore.
“A lot changes in eight years,” he said. “It started off with a lot of dolls, a lot of cars, a lot of toys. Now it’s electronics and all kinds of games and stuff of that nature.”
So far, this year’s popular items haven’t surprised Santa, who said he usually spends about two weeks before each season combing through magazines and catalogues to see what the big sellers are expected to be; 2014 items include Legos, Skylanders, anything Frozen-related, and XBox360 and similar gaming gear.
But aside from his bag of toys (or, in this case, his bag of reindeer antler cardboard Christmas hats), Santa also has a full stash of tips and tricks he’s picked up over the years to stop the criers and calm the fidgeters.
Part of his personal touch is his tendency to be an “active Santa”—walking around the set, greeting kids in line, and waving at onlookers.
“I can relate somehow to children,” he said, noting that many times he’s been able to develop a connection with special needs children who come to see him, “and they somehow relate to me, either because of my voice or because of the sound, but it’s something that I’ve found has turned into a very positive thing.”
But sometimes, the kids still throw him a curveball.
“You have the situations when children come in and ask questions,” he said. “’Santa, can you bring my daddy home from Iraq?’ And ‘Santa, can you bring my mommy and daddy back together?’”
When those questions come, making sure the child leaves feeling happy and with a positive outlook is what Santa aims to do, often just reminding them that their parents love them.
“When children come up, you have to listen to them and respond to them what you think is best for their situation,” he said. “Maybe I make some mistakes once in a while, but I try to be honest, make them feel good about themselves, so they walk out of here smiling and happy.”
Though kids are certainly the majority of his visitors, some of Santa’s favorite experiences haven’t involved any children at all.
“I have young adults…they’ll come in all smiles with their sisters or brothers to get a picture, because that would make (their) mom’s Christmas,” he said.
“I’ll have senior citizens sit on my lap and they’ll say, ‘Jeez, I haven’t done this in a long, long time.’”
What he’s most proud of, though, is the lasting effect he can leave with people and the small moment of joy he can give to others.
He keeps a copy of a letter he received several years ago, a letter written to him by a young woman, that reminds him of how much people can be affected by a bit of Christmas joy. In her letter, the woman explained that her husband was currently deployed and life was difficult for her and her children. She’d seen Santa in the mall one day, first when he waved to her from his display, and later on when Santa stopped in the food court to interact with a disabled man in a wheelchair, whom she guessed was about 50 years old. Seeing the man’s face light up as Santa stopped to talk and sit with him, the woman wrote, gave her a burst of Christmas joy that she and her family had been missing.
It’s stories like those that encourage Santa to keep wearing his red suit and hat year after year.
“One of the things I find really rewarding for me is when they get up and they leave, and they’ll turn around and say, ‘He’s the real guy. That’s the best Santa I’ve ever seen,’” he said. “Those things you can’t put a price on, the things that make you feel like you did your job right. But I love being Santa. That is the answer. Because it’s so nice to see and feel that people see you for who you are and that I made a difference in their life for a moment before the holiday.”