'Twas the night before Santa was scheduled to head out with his sleigh full of toys when Crystal Hollingsworth took her daughter Paris Amber to Landover Mall for a last-minute visit.
But when the Hollingsworths arrived Thursday, they didn't find a Santa ho-ho-hoing and finishing his toy list. Instead, they say they got an earful from the portly bearded one, who snapped grinchily that parents were limited to taking just one photograph of their tots on his lap with their personal cameras.
"If everybody comes up here and takes their own pictures, we don't make any money," Santa told one camera-toting mother, as her son stood by. "We're trying to make money. It's all about money."
So much for sugarplums and reindeer. For this Santa, on this afternoon, it was all about the Benjamins.
"I couldn't believe it," said Hollingsworth, of Glenarden. "This whole thing should be about letting children have an opportunity to see Santa. It brings parents into the mall to shop."
Washington area malls have long hired Santa concessions to lure shoppers during the competitive holiday season. Mall managers from Tysons to Annapolis said they offer Santa photos for sale but don't push parents to buy them or limit parents in using their own cameras.
"If we've got a big crowd, we discourage them from taking a lot of pictures, but we certainly don't limit them to one," said Bob Burdette, operations manager at Landmark Mall in Alexandria. "I've never heard of limiting parents to taking one photo."
But under the gold Christmas tree at Landover on Thursday, concession manager Yvonne Conte told parents that the limit was set by owner Cherry Hill (N.J.) Photo.
"I don't make the rules," Conte said. "But we don't make any money off people who take their own pictures. You can only take one picture. One picture."
Officials at Cherry Hill Photo, which also runs concessions at Annapolis, Montgomery and other malls, said it sets no limits on personal picture-taking with Santa. "I can tell you that is absolutely not our policy," Diane Plover said.
Juanita Barber, 37, of Largo, who took her children Alexa, 7, and Austin, 4, to Landover, said she was particularly upset because, like many African American parents in the area, she wanted her children to see the mall's black Santa.
"We shouldn't have to go outside our community to have our children treated well by Santa," she said.
With all the pressure Santa is under this time of year, however, perhaps it's not surprising that even the jolly old elf can get grumpy.
Crystal Hollingsworth consoled her daughter with a warm cinnamon bun after her meeting with Santa and tried to explain the sometimes mysterious moods of adults.
"I told her maybe he's just having a bad day," Hollingsworth said. "She was just happy to get a Cinnabon."