Longtime Mall Santa Out in the Cold

Michael Graham, who has served as the legendary Tysons Corner Santa Claus for the past 18 years.
Michael Graham, who has served as the legendary Tysons Corner Santa Claus for the past 18 years. (Courtesy of Brotman-Winter-Fried Communications)
By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Santa just got the boot. And not just any Santa.

Michael Graham has been Santa at Tysons Corner Center for so long that many who visited him when they were young have brought their own children to experience his magic: a real snowy beard, a twinkle in his eye, a way with children that conveyed the presence of a kind and timeless character. He drew family members from the Washington region and beyond who stood in long lines for hours and brought albums with pictures taken in his lap from Christmases past.

But after 18 years of planting children on his knee, Graham said yesterday that the Fairfax County mall is not inviting him back this year. Graham said he's not sure why, particularly because he had a contract until 2012. A spokeswoman for the company that manages the mall said Graham has done nothing wrong. It's just that the company wanted a different Santa signed on by the new photo operator who will run the event.

That leaves Graham, 51, without work this holiday season and with visions of foreclosure dancing in his head. Graham, who works as a carpenter in a small Tennessee town when he's not minding the store at the North Pole, said he was counting on the $30,000 he would earn as Santa when he bought a new house last year.

Now it's too late to book another mall, and he has already spent a good bit of money preparing for Christmas. It's not elves who make each of the three $900 custom-tailored velvet suits he goes through each year, or the boots that go for $725 a pair.

"It obviously put me in a major bind," Graham said in a telephone interview.

Those who have known him over the years reacted to the news as if they had been exiled to the Island of Broken Toys.

"What a bunch of Grinches to do that!" said Michelle Gallagher, 40, who took her 3-year-old daughter, Anna, to see him. "I'm absolutely shocked."

Gallagher, who lives in Leesburg, said she still has last year's holiday picture, with her daughter and Santa, hanging on the refrigerator.

"He is the Santa you imagine in your mind," Gallagher said. "It's his whole demeanor, his whole presence. It's his eyes. The cheeks. The beard. It's a real beard, too -- it's huge. I mean, I won't go back there if he's not there. I won't even shop there."

People who know Graham say his ability to play Santa Claus has something to do with having three children, four grandchildren and a deep religious faith. He also takes his seasonal work seriously. He said he has never missed a day of duty. He also said he does not drink. He does not smoke. He does not curse.

His impersonation of St. Nick inspired Southern Living Magazine to write, "Yes, Virginia, there really is a Santa Claus. His name is Mike Graham."

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