Sweet St. Nicks

Matthew Wagner, Staff Reporter

Seeing Santa in your local mall is a staple of the holiday season for people nationwide. Despite mall Santas’ broad reach, the origins of this esteemed tradition and the costumed people running the show are often overlooked by visitors. 

This holiday season staple dates back to 1890, when Scottish immigrant James Edgar dressed up as St. Nicholas in his department store in Massachusetts. Due to Edgar’s initial success, Santas were embraced by department retailers all around the country during the holiday season. 

Santa has been in malls since their beginning in the early 20th century. Their presence has continued to be a prevalent tradition largely due to its profitability every season, not just for the thousands of St. Nicks around the U.S. but also for the shopping centers. The people who come to malls and see Santa often spend hours getting dinner, shopping and spending money as part of their visits. 

The company who runs Santa visits in our area is known as Cherry Hill Programs. Cherry Hill Programs is a private equity firm based in Marlton, New Jersey which focuses on “experiential photography.” Last year, they accumulated over 20 million dollars worth of revenue, in no small part due to their sale of overpriced Santa pictures. 

On the booking website, you pay a baseline price of $26 just to reserve a time slot, but this does not include the extra 15-20 dollars you will pay if you want your photos with St. Nick. In reality, you do not need a reservation to see him; you can simply walk up and wait in a regular line (albeit slower and without photos). 

Although people line up for hours to see and take photos with Santa, few ponder who those in costume are. 

One of these men in costume is an 82-year-old man named Gary Saunders, a deep, sweet person with stories that could go on for hours at a time. Even without knowing him, he comes off as a comforting grandfather-esque figure with his thick white beard and mid-range gravelly voice. A defining feature of Saunder’s storied life is dressing up as Santa and making meaningful connections with mall goers each holiday season. He first got involved almost 20 years ago. 

“I did my first Santa gig in 1997, and I said, ‘Hey, I like this’…. I was getting to the point where I had to start looking for something else when I finished teaching in ‘03,” Saunders said. 

Over those 20 years, Saunders has seen thousands of children all across the Eastern United States. In 2005, he had 805 kids sit on his lap in one day. In the end, seeing the smiles he brings to other’s faces makes it all worth it.

Even though the smiles are splendid, there are a few other reasons he continues to work as Santa every year. 

“Usually, I work 35 days per year. Last year, I was in Richmond. I did two malls, and I made $10,000 at each mall,” Saunders said. 

However, money and joy are not the only motivating factors. After he saw 805 kids, he was visited by a miracle. 

“At the end of the day, these two older ladies walked up to me. One of ’em put her arm around me, and said, ‘I just want you to know that he said, you did a great job.’ I’m left to figure out who ‘he’ is, but I had to think these two had to be angels,” Saunders said. 

Every season, angel visit or not, is very tiring for the elderly Saunders. As is tradition for him, Saunders retreats to West Virginia after the strenuous holiday work weeks. 

“My people are from West Virginia …. [Every year,] I go watch the Mountaineers play football, basketball and baseball,” Saunders said. 

Living a “retirement lifestyle,” Saunders also enjoys going to visit his family all around the United States. 

“I have 16 grandchildren, and they live all over. I have three sons and one daughter. The oldest is in LA…. Keeping up with 16 grandkids and two great grandkids on the way [takes a lot of time],” Saunders said. 

Although Saunders is just one in a huge industry, he still works hard to maintain a genuine connection with everyone he sees. This is to keep the mall Santa tradition alive and celebrated for his ever-growing family in the future.  

Through its long history, the intricate mall Santa industry connects thousands of jolly St. Nicks with millions of Americans every year. Although Santas serve an important role in a lucrative business, they do not lose the personal connection with their visitors, even though they can see hundreds everyday. Despite the mediocre, money-hungry websites, seeing Santa at your local mall remains a cherished and time-honored tradition Americans partake in each and every holiday season.