On Saturday morning, I first found Santa in a nearby park in Hampden, sitting next to a baseball diamond, with two elves. He was handing out free presents. I decided to ask the question that had been bugging me. It went something like this:
You’re Santa. The North Pole is melting. The economy is flat-lined. Parents may have just had their Humvee seized. What happens when the kid asks you to buy an iPad. Is there a sensitive way to place a damper on their more extravagant wishes?
He looked at me through his spectacles, as though I’d just asked him to sit in my lap. “I’m head of the neighborhood group,” he said. “I only do this one day a year,” he said, and declined to be interviewed. Fair enough. So I headed north to Towson, to find a Santa, maybe, closer to the North Pole.
The Santa, on the first floor of Towson Town Center, clearly was doing this as a day job. He had an enormous spread, surrounded by photographers, digital displays, and Poinsettias, richly draped with red cloth. He was a pro. He was lying back in his high-backed chair, with a long line of kids, an army of elves, and a visiting fee. I watched the children bounce on and off his knees, waiting for a chance to get access. Then Santa got up, apparently on break. Now was my chance.
I pushed my way around the exit and held out my digital recorder. Santa’s handler told me that he needed a break, apparently to check on toy production, and he would be back in an hour. I told Santa that I was a reporter and needed to interview him briefly about being Santa in a time of high unemployment and low prospects.
He looked down at me through his glasses, genially but severely. He was about five inches taller than I.
“Santa doesn’t do interviews.” And then with a twinkle, he told me that if I wanted, though, I could line up and get photographed telling him what I wanted for Christmas. For about 20 bucks. That would be in an hour, though. He had to eat lunch. His elf cut me off and guided him through the gate.
I watched Santa heading into the jam-packed hallway towards the food court, which had absolutely nothing to do with toy production. What the hell was that about? I’d been one of his biggest fans. I wasn’t anymore though. Did he even exist? I would have to ask that question while sitting on his lap. And I would get photographed. It would probably go viral. It wasn’t worth it.
The journey to find a Santa who wanted to talk about the paralyzed economy continued.
I headed west. Across Charles Street, right off the Beltway: to Kenilworth Mall. It was smaller and cozier, with an elaborate, old-school electronic train greeting me upon arrival.
There, I ran into a four-year-old neighbor of mine, Audrey, who was watching the train and holding a huge ball of cotton candy. We came up with a deal: I would tell her where Santa was, and she and her mom would get me access. I wouldn’t have to sit on his lap. She could ask him for a present.
The Santa Experience was on the second floor of Kenilworth Mall. The Santa Claus himself didn’t have the intimidating charisma of the Towson Town Claus. He was shorter, plumper, and a little easier to approach. Audrey lined up with her mom. I asked her what she planned on getting for Christmas, but she grabbed her mom’s leg. “I’m shy,” she explained.
But she did help me squeeze by the elves and through the barriers. She completed the photo shoot, on Santa’s knee whispering something off the record in his ear. Now was my opportunity. I revealed to Santa that I wasn’t her dad, I was an undercover investigative journalist interviewing for Baltimore Fishbowl.
Unemployment is hovering around 10 percent. How do you stop kids from driving their parents into the poorhouse?
Santa had no immediate comment. But I was directed to his handlers, a pair of photographers who were running this Santa Experience. Mike, a friendly and talkative assistant, talked to me a little about the business, Class Images. The emphasis on the experience, with more lap time, and not just on the transaction itself.
“So we want the kids to have a lot more quality time with Santa. With other malls, it’s in and out quick, but we want kids to talk to Santa — we want Santa to interact with the kids. We really want them to leave with a positive experience.”
The current Santa, he said, is “Santa Pat,” the breakfast Santa. “He actually works for the federal government.” Santa in the afternoon is Santa Dave. “He’s actually a college professor, who teaches criminal law at the University of Maryland.” Their third Santa, Santa Carmen, is from Pennsylvania. “We found him in a parking lot, and we walked up to him and told him, we want you to be Santa.” He emphasized that, like everyone in the industry, they did background checks on all the Santas.
He had to break for a moment. A one-year-old had started screaming in Santa’s lap. That was taken care of. He continued.
“Some of the other Santas, in the big malls, it’s ‘Get a picture, and you’re gone.’ Of course, the pictures are part of the experience, but the real part is sitting on Santa’s lap, asking him for a present or having him or her ask, ‘How was your year?’”
But what if it has been a lousy year for the parents? How has the economy changed Santa’s approach?
“That’s a good point. And it’s a very valid point today. They get the questions like that all the time. Our Santas are instructed to say this: ‘Santa will try and do his best. But everything that Santa is going to give you is going to be one special gift this year.’ It’s hard when that child asks for an iPad. But we instruct our Santas, especially if you see that expression in their mom’s eyes, you tell the child, ‘Whatever you get, it’s going to be especially made for you.’”
Of course, kids aren’t the only ones who have to ratchet down expectations. As Mike explained, Santa has had to tighten his own belt a few notches.
“Now, times are tough. So this year, it’s our Dollar Store mentality. We lower the package 30 percent (from $35 to $20). In today’s economy, that’s really important. We shopped from Virginia to Pennsylvania to make sure we met every competitor out there.”
Towson Town Mall, he noted when pressed, hires a nationwide Santa Claus company. “So thanks for supporting a local business,” he said, shaking my hand.
Mission accomplished, I headed to the food court. I grabbed two slices of cheese pizza. I had gotten the answer I needed. But still, something didn’t ring right about his answer.
Wait. Santa Claus is local?
But that would be material for another story.