Every November for the last 18 years, Michael Graham, a 51-year old carpenter from Tennessee, has closed up shop, packed three red suits and a pair of black leather boots, and traveled to Fairfax County, Virginia, where he is the Christmas Santa at Tysons Corner Mall. This year, however, he won't be making the trip; although Graham had a contract until 2012, Tysons recently informed him that his services will no longer be needed. As the Washington Post reports, it is too late for Graham to find alternate employment and, without his yearly Santa salary, he will likely lose his home. Consequently, he is pursuing legal action against his former employer.
UPDATE: The AP is now reporting that the mall is rehiring Graham. Earlier in the week, the mall had apologized to its fired Santa and is trying to help him find a job. But now that won't be necessary.
I grew up down the road from Tysons and spent my high school years working in Fair Oaks Mall, one of its biggest competitors. In the 1980's, Tysons and Fair Oaks were located in the highest-income county in the United States; today, Fairfax County is still number two. As the area's wealth soared and the malls found themselves in furious competition, Fair Oaks decided to make a bold move: they revolutionized Santa. Rather than stick with the classic alcoholic-in-a-tattered-suit experience that characterized my childhood, they brought in a professional. This Santa had a real beard, a real beer belly, and a really bright gleam in his eye. Of course, my fellow mallrats and I realized that there was a reason for the obvious joy: Santas with real beards don't come cheap, and this particular avatar of Jolly Saint Nick was probably pulling in some major bucks.
Therein lies at least one potential reason for Tysons decision to fire Michael Graham. The apple-cheeked elf pulls down $30,000 per Christmas season, which translates to $175 per hour. Admittedly, he has to provide his own Santa suits, which cost $900 apiece, as well as his own $725 boots. Beyond that, he must hoist thousands of children into his lap for several hours a day, cheerfully smiling as they pee on him, whine, tug his beard, and burst into tears. He must be as happy for the first child as he is for the last, smiling and posing for obnoxious parents and dealing with the grumbling, minimum-wage elves who run the photo booth.
Although Tysons Corner has not given any reason for Graham's termination, the mall recently hired a new company, World Wide Photography, to provide Christmas photography services. According to a representative from World Wide, $175 per hour is roughly ten times the going rate for mall Santas. Then again, if my childhood photographs are any indication, the average Mall Santa is a miserable-looking guy in a stained suit with a fake beard hanging askew on his face. By comparison, Michael Graham appears to be a warm, generous, and caring reflection of the spirit of Christmas.
With the economy in shambles and disposable income a rarity, it looks like this is going to be a difficult holiday season for malls, even in the wealthiest part of the country. That having been said, firing Santa isn't the best way for Tysons to inspire potential customers to indulge the spirit of Christmas. Taken at face value, Michael Graham's hourly rate may seem outrageous; taken as a measure of Christmas, it doesn't seem like very much at all.
Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He wonders if Tysons' next move will be to sell reindeer burgers in the food court.
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