Independent Student Newspaper of UW Oshkosh Campuses

The Advance-Titan

Independent Student Newspaper of UW Oshkosh Campuses

The Advance-Titan

Independent Student Newspaper of UW Oshkosh Campuses

The Advance-Titan

Confessions of a Mall Santa


Visiting Santa in the weeks leading up to Christmas has been a longstanding tradition for many families. 

This year, Cassie Kappus, a mother of three, made over an hour-long drive to the Fox River Mall just to have her daughters take photos with Santa for the sixth year in a row. 

“Memories and photos last a lifetime, so it’s something that you’ll never get back,” she said.

What some families might not realize, however, is just how much work goes into getting that picture-perfect Christmas memory.

On the outside, sitting on a gingerbread throne and smiling for photos might seem like a pretty straightforward (and maybe even desirable) job, but there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to working as a Mall Santa. 

Al “Santa Al” Vollmer from Kimberly, Wisconsin opened up on the ins and outs of working as Santa for 18 years. 

Spoiler: It’s not all milk and cookies.

It takes more than just a beard and a belly

That’s what the Santa who scouted Vollmer in an OfficeMax parking lot said when explaining the requirements to play the king of the North Pole. 

On top of looks, Vollmer said it takes a certain type of social skills to keep the holiday cheer steady throughout the day.  

“More so than just the appearance, you have to have the desire and the willingness to be a little bit patient with people and stay friendly,” Vollmer said. 

The main mission of Mall Santas is to create a welcoming atmosphere for children — or “youngsters” in the Santa world — while making core memories for families efficiently.  

“You gotta make sure you’re attentive to what’s going on with your photographer and your youngster and you have to be able to put the youngster at ease,” he said. “You have to have a little bit of personality is what it boils down to.”

However, it does help to have a white beard and an ample belly, also known as “the cookie zone” in the Santa business.

Christmas lists can take a dark turn

Typically, Santas are asked for common, popular toys from that year, whether it’s Tickle-Me-Elmo, Heelys or, especially in 2023, Barbie. 

However, Vollmer said he’s been caught off guard more than once by children’s requests.

“They’d say it with all sincerity, ‘Santa, can you make Mom and Dad stop fighting?’” Vollmer said. “I mean, what do you answer to that, you know?”

He said some children’s wish lists were more somber than others, with some asking for parents to come home from prison or military deployment.

Since Santa unfortunately cannot deliver on all requests, Vollmer said he shifts the focus to the fact that the youngster is loved and cared for.

“Those are really difficult things to answer,” he said.

Not all Santas go to school 

While there are some professional Santa courses across the country, Vollmer received relatively little training before being thrown into the deep end that is the mall food court. 

However, in the minimal training he did receive, Vollmer said the  No. 1  rule is to keep hands visible in the pictures to avoid any inappropriate incidents or accusations. 

“Santas have been accused of doing improper things with their hands,” he said. 

To keep everyone safe, Vollmer said it’s standard practice to keep hands in the photos at all times, although this can be tricky with two or three kids on his lap. (And yes, he has had to hold triplets at once for a photo.)

The second rule of Santa training is to never promise children anything, since his jurisdiction over gifts ends after families take their photos. This way, children who don’t receive the gift they asked Santa for are let down a bit easier. 

“You say, ‘Well, we’ll try,’ ‘We’ll see’ or ‘We’ll do the best we can with that,’” he said. “They do ask for expensive things.”

Santa never breaks character

In order to maintain the fantasy of Santa, it’s important for Mall Santas to stay in character at all times. 

Occasionally, this can prove to be a challenge, especially in tense situations.Vollmer said he recalled one instance of a woman hitting her grandson’s face for misbehaving.

“I just lost it,” he said. “I said, ‘Ma’am, how dare you strike that child in Santa’s presence.’”

However, once he’s suited up, it’s typically an easy task to stay in character, Vollmer said.

“It’s really not too difficult to do that, you know,” he said. “You’re there and you’ve got the suit on, so you’ve got the image down.”

Parents can be naughty, too

Holidays are stressful for everyone, and crowded spaces, long lines and screaming children can cause tensions to rise for some parents taking their children to see Santa.

Vollmer said that in some venues, he’s had to be escorted by mall security guards in order to take his lunch break.

“People would be very angry,” he said. “They were actually using vulgar language, cussing.”

… and sometimes they’re too nice

Children aren’t the only ones who get excited for Santa; Moms do, too, Vollmer said.

“A lot of them like to kiss me on the cheek for the photo, and when they do that, I open my mouth real wide like I’m surprised,” he said. “But I know it’s all in fun.”

He does have a few lines he saves just for some of the more flirtatious visitors.

“I tell them, ‘Make sure Mrs. Claus doesn’t get a hold of this photo or I’ll be in big, big trouble,’” he said. “Or, ‘What about your husband; does he have a gun?’”

Yes, Santa’s been peed on

Mall Santas can sometimes have up to 60 children an hour placed on their laps — this leaves a lot of room for accidents. However, Vollmer said he’s only had one nervous youngster have an accident on Santa.

“He was somewhat frightened of Santa, but he was going to be tough and he got up on the knee,” Vollmer said. “Then I felt just a little bit of warmth on my left knee.”

Vollmer handled with grace what might have sent some people into panic. In the event that a child has an accident on Santa’s lap, he simply excuses himself for a short break to clean up without causing a scene. 

Don’t worry; it didn’t stain the suit.

Santas get battle wounds

While many children are excited to see the man who’s supposedly going to bring them a pile of Christmas gifts, some are less than thrilled by a strange man in a red suit, Vollmer said.

“There are children who just don’t want anything to do with Santa,” Vollmer said.  “Many are all excited to see Santa until they get a few feet away. They turn their faces away from Santa, cling to their parents and start crying.”

It’s not uncommon for upset children to show this in the final photo, where they’ll be captured with screaming or crying faces. 

Vollmer said these photos can be fun in the future, but a little traumatic at the time, and even Santa doesn’t come out unscathed.

“The worst part of those photos for Santa is the bruised shins from the kicking little feet,” he said.

Santa loves his job

Despite the hardships, Vollmer said most Santas enjoy their job, and that he will even be Santa off the clock.

“I love being Santa,” he said. “I visit year-round with children that I see in stores, restaurants and on the street.”

He said some of his favorite memories have been meeting people with unique histories, including a 96-year-old woman who had visited Santa every single year.

Another woman, Vollmer said, came to him in tears of joy because she’d just brought her baby to Santa, despite being told she wouldn’t be able to get pregnant. 

Vollmer said he’s grateful he ended up with the traditional Santa appearance with his full beard and belly, which allowed him to create some of his favorite memories.

“I always say that it is a blessing from God that He made me to look this way and allow me the privilege to do this work,” he said. “After all, that child is counting on you to try to grant his/her wishes.”

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