In recent times, Mall Santas have become a bit like clowns - these once lovable staples of popular culture have now become slightly creepy figures of derision. We now spend more time considering what kind of dysfunctional person becomes a Mall Santa in the first place rather than innocently sitting on his lap and asking him to bring us every material desire we’ve lusted after over the last year, imploring what a good person we’ve been. Well, we want to change all that, and restore the beloved Mall Santa to where he rightly belongs - a beloved and vital part of Mall culture around the wonderful Christmas season.

Department stores were the birthing grounds for this great holiday tradition of going to meet Santa and getting a photograph taken with him. The origins go deep; you have to go back as far as the late 1800’s to find the first evidence of a Santa in his grotto, listening to excited children’s requests and snapping photographs for posterity. In 1888, J.R. Roberts department store in Straford, England unveiled the first ever grotto. As others saw how enticing this was to families, who undoubtedly did some shopping while they were there, a war was sparked between stores - the race was on to make grottos and window displays ever more grandiose. This tradition continues through to the present day.

As soon as the first modern Mall opened, Santa moved in!

A little girl meeting Santa in the 1950's. Once children understand the concept, a lifelong love is established...

By 1923, main shopping streets were being replaced by large shopping arcades, the forefathers of the enclosed Mall in Europe, and each one had to have their very own grotto. Meanwhile in America, Department store Macy’s was getting in on the act and architecture genius Victor Gruen was concocting his plan for the very first modern Shopping Mall. The Southdale Centre opened in October, 1956. No sooner had the doors opened than the new Mall’s attention turned to Christmas plans. They decorated the Centre in tinsel and had a huge Christmas tree in the main atrium. Again, this is now something just about every Mall across the world still continues to do. Of course, Santa was there entertaining the kids and asking what they would like under the tree on Christmas Day.

This would be a good time to mention the one fatal flaw in the now famous Santa photo opportunity - this is probably the only time a parent will hand over their precious progeny to a complete stranger and walk away. The realisation quickly hits that, although the parent perfectly understands the premise of the whole scenario, little Becky has no idea what’s going on and is soon ripping at Jolly St. Nick’s bushy eyebrows and is attempting to scream the entire grotto into rubble. However, I like to see this as a learning opportunity as opposed to childhood trauma! Just be comforted by the fact that as soon as Becky finds out that Santa has the goodies, she will love him forever.

...however it can be a rocky start!

The man who ruined it all - Willie T. Stokes! (Dimension Films / Columbia Pictures)

But what of the now slightly soured view of the Mall Santa? Well, hilarious 2003 Christmas comedy ‘Bad Santa’ didn’t help matters. The film features a hustling, drunken Mall Santa and his equally amoral elven sidekick, who attempts to rob a Mall department store on Christmas Eve. They are however scuppered by Santa’s excessive drinking, his lust for women and what approximates a soft spot for a dopey kid who is convinced that he is the real Santa Claus. It was truly the ‘IT’ (the Stephen King film, featuring a demonic clown which ruined clowns for a generation of children!) of the Mall Santa world. For those who haven’t seen this holiday gem - will it tarnish your image of Mall Santa irreversibly? Yes. Is it still totally worth seeing? Absolutely! Just don’t show little Becky.

Nowadays ‘Santa’s Village’ has replaced the humble grotto and a Santa photograph has become a whole package deal. A fat guy in a red suit doing a favour for a free lunch has become a professional Santa who does this for a living, using specialist Father Christmas employment agencies to secure year-round work. It’s gone a little crazy. There is now a Santa school training the next generation of Mall Santas. Sorry, the correct term is ‘Santa Regional Representatives’. They learn everything, including the entire history of this 1700 year old jolly man. I’m not sure why exactly; perhaps in preparation for a particularly fussy guardian who may want to grill the Mall Santa to ensure that their angel is getting the very best Santa possible.

Today, Malls go all out for Christmas. In my opinion, the season would not be the same without a trip to my local Mall to see the decorations

Santa grottos have morphed into entire villages!

Villages have also become gloriously obscene. In most cases, Santa’s elves have been replaced by impossibly cheery staff decked out in outfits similar to the man himself. In Wafi City Mall in Dubai, snow falls upon a winter wonderland as the children commune with Santa. Live reindeer have also been known to appear, as well as a positive buffet of Christmassy delicacies such as gingerbread cookies on which the kids can munch while they enjoy their time in the grotto. If snack aren’t enough, some Malls offer entire syrupy breakfasts with Santa. Now comes a little look into the dark underbelly of Santa’s village - they rotate Santas! Up to eight can be working at a time in what may just be the greatest coverup since the Roswell UFO was called an air balloon by the U.S. military.

I recall visiting a Mall Santa every year before puberty struck, and there is photo evidence. I mention such evidence because if you look at all of the photos in succession, you can watch our relationship flourish - I go from screaming hysterically in terror at the crazy red and white man who is holding me on his lap against my will, my parents seemingly doing nothing to rescue me (in fact they seemed to be getting some kind of sick pleasure out of my sheer horror!), to having to be wrestled away from my beloved gift-bringer by a team of Mall staff and parental figures because I loved the guy so much. I will forever think fondly of that magical day every year when I got to go to my favourite place to see my favourite North Poler, and I hope many generations into the future get to experience the same wonder. The season hath begun!

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