'Tis a Reason to Be Jolly: Mall Rehires Santa

A dispute between a veteran Santa and Tysons Corner Mall appears to be headed for a happy ending after his abrupt firing prompted a public outcry. Video by AP
By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 24, 2008

Yes, Virginia, there is a clause, and it's in a new contract that will allow Santa to return to work.

Tysons Corner Center and Santa -- aka Michael Graham -- reached agreement in principle yesterday to return him to the Santaland in the Fairfax County mall where he has dazzled tens of thousands of children for 18 years, both sides said.

After an angry and impassioned outcry that included thousands of e-mails, phone calls, an online petition and the threat of a boycott, America's sixth-largest mall reversed course, giving the drama a happy ending that seemed to have been snatched from the screenplay of "Miracle on 34th Street.''

As the final details were being scrutinized by lawyers, Graham called off a scheduled news conference yesterday morning at the shopping mall and headed home to a small town in Tennessee where he works as a carpenter the rest of the year. As part of the deal, Graham also agreed not to comment to the media.

His admirers were joyful that Graham would return to Northern Virginia's North Pole.

"I'm just pleased that the power of the people, and the voices of the people, has been heard," said Tina Rodell, a mother in Reston who has taken her son Pierce, now 4, to see Santa at Tysons Corner Center for the past three years. Her husband, Hugh Rodell, who runs North Star Christmas Trees in Beltsville, had gone to the mall for the news conference to make an offer of his own. He had a $1,000 check in his pocket for Graham and hoped to find 29 other sponsors to raise a total of $30,000 -- the sum that Graham had been contracted to receive -- to bring him back to Northern Virginia.

A spokeswoman for the mall said that although the agreement is not yet official, all sides are working toward that end.

"We are doing everything we can to fulfill the needs and the request of the community," said Allison Fischer, a spokeswoman for Macerich Co., which operates the mall. "All we're hoping for is a happy ending."

Graham, who lives in Sevierville, Tenn., played Santa for the first time 23 years ago. People who had sat on his lap as children would bring their own children to see him, and family albums are filled with chronological testaments to the tradition.

Parents marveled at his patience, his demeanor and his ability to draw out children. The December 1998 Southern Living Magazine singled him out as best in class.

"He is Santa," said June Bogan, who related the time when, at 55, she sat on Santa's lap for a picture. "Every time I think of that late afternoon when the mall was not crowded and he said it would be fun to let this overweight, middle-aged woman who has a different sense of humor sit on his knee and have my picture taken, I just get that Christmas feeling all over again," said Bogan, 62.

Mall managers had said they signed a new company for the Christmas season this year in hopes of enhancing the experience for families by remodeling the North Pole set and shortening the wait. What they did not understand was how many people were willing to drive from outside the region and wait for an hour or more to allow their children to experience the magic that Graham brought to the role.

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