With Santa's Return, a Happy Ending at Tysons

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 23, 2008

Strictly speaking, it does not always look like fun.

Waiting in line, many children are so hopped up with excitement that they forgo breakfast, visits to the bathroom and parental attempts at conversation. But the closer the children get to their destination -- the twinkling Christmas trees, the giant throne-like chair, the bearded, strangely attired man -- the more their emotions build and build into what can only be described as sheer panic. Even terror. Several cry.

But this is the memorable experience that parents love each year -- and that drove thousands of them to raise a hullabaloo last month after Tysons Corner Center tried to fire the Santa of 18 years, Michael Graham, and put another in his place.

Yesterday, Graham triumphantly returned to Santaland at Tysons Corner, having been saved by thousands of fans who phoned, e-mailed, petitioned and threatened a boycott until the mall reversed its plan to boot him.

His story had traveled about as far as his sleigh from the North Pole, covered by media across the country. An Italian TV station booked an interview yesterday, his publicist said.

"Everybody's always known that the best Santa is at Tysons," said Nada Kanaan, 36, a business analyst from Great Falls. "People pretty much come here rather than anywhere else to see him. . . . So I think it was a bit of a misstep for Tysons."

Several visitors said that until they saw Graham in the giant green chair where he belonged, they were not sure that Northern Virginia's version of "Miracle on 34th Street" would really have a happy ending.

Their doubts vanished about 9 a.m. yesterday. A toy soldier on stilts and some dancing elves led the way as Santa made his entrance, sitting in the locomotive of a three-car train filled with children. A crowd of about 300 people parted to let him through.

"Here he comes!" the guy on stilts shouted. "Everyone on best behavior!"

Kanaan's children watched with awe as Santa's train approached. Her daughter, Maya, 4, was dressed in a red jumper and zebra-pattern pants and was clutching a balloon tulip. Her son, Jad, 6, held a balloon sword and clutched a wish list for Santa with a single entry: "I wish you a Merry Christmas."

In the wings, helpers were painting faces and twisting balloons into candy canes, and a sound system blared "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" as people queued up. Many were parents who brought their children to experience what they had experienced as children. For others, yesterday was their first time visiting Santa.

Cyndi Kaszirer, 53, of McLean said she had warm memories of going to a Richmond department store to meet Santa and wanted the same for her children and grandchildren. "The room would be crowded with kids and grandmas and mothers, and everyone would be all dressed up in their Sunday best. You would meet an elf and a beautiful Santa Claus who was very, very believable," she said. "We're really looking for that warm family feeling."

Kaszirer said she was happy that her son, Max, 10, was a little less leery of Santa than last year. But other children weren't.

Over and over, the same tics and coping mechanisms appeared. Solemn nodding at whatever Santa might be asking them. Faces turned to stone. Limbs stiffened. Their posture -- back rigid, shoulders braced -- became utterly perfect. The kids on Santa's lap often looked off into space, staring at just about anything but the camera lens and showing new and intense interest in a chewed fingernail, a spot somewhere high above the mall lobby or their shoes. Their faces seemed to clench around their teeth as parents surrendered almost all shame, performing antics to get a smile. Santa could be asking if the child would like a dose of smallpox, and the children would have nodded.

But Graham coaxed reluctant kids forward, patting his knee and working to draw them out. He spoke calmly, soothingly, with just the faintest burr of an accent from Tennessee, where he lives.

"Wow! What's that you got there?" Graham said to a child clutching a toy. "How are you today?"

And the kids got closer, close enough to stroke the red velvet coat and the rabbit fur fringe. Close enough to pet his snowy beard. And Graham has a knack with them. He asks questions and keeps asking, even when he's not getting replies. He does some of his best work with his eyes. Set deeply in a broad, chubby face, they lock on to each child with what appears to be unfeigned interest.

"There are some incredible stories out there," Graham said in an interview before his appearance. "I remember two children that came up, and I said, 'What would you like for Christmas?' And they said, 'Santa, I don't want any toys, I don't want anything. Santa, can you bring Mommy and Daddy back together?' "

Another asked him to return a parent who died. Graham said he listens, and he comforts when he can, usually with reassuring words drawn from his religious faith. "See, that's the time I can spend a little time on my personal beliefs, that God has put me in this position for a reason, " he said.

Graham had a contract at the mall through 2012 that paid him about $30,000 to work seven days a week for five weeks, and it included a clause that allowed the mall to discontinue his services without cause. But Graham said he did not learn of the cancellation until he contacted the mall in late September, and by then it was too late to line up another job.

In the offseason, the dark-haired, bewhiskered Graham looks more like a roadie for the Allman Brothers Band than Santa. Each November, that's easily fixed with a bottle of hydrogen peroxide, although now and then the bleaching has irritated his scalp. ("My hair would -- I literally had this happen -- it starts to go up in smoke if they use too high of an amount of peroxide.")

Then he stops his mail, closes up his house in Sevierville, Tenn. (pop. 22,000), bids his partners in his construction company goodbye and heads north. Graham expressed gratitude to be back.

"I'm ecstatic," he said. "Right here is where I built the rapport. . . . I would like to never even have to think about going anywhere else other than right here."

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