Why Santa Claus Is a No-Show at Many Malls This Year

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The imagery of the Christmas season overwhelms every shopping center at this time of year, with candy canes, snowmen, wreaths, holly, and red, green, and gold accents everywhere you look. And while the image of Santa Claus is also ubiquitous, you can’t expect a living, breathing version of the jolly old elf at every mall in the land.

Throughout North America, most shopping centers are proceeding with the traditions of the season, including regular appearances of Santa, complete with the chance for kids to sit on his lap, tell him what they want, and get a picture taken—so long as they can endure the traditionally long line to get their turn.

The San Diego Union-Tribune recently reported, however, that Santa is showing up less, and sometimes not all at all, at certain malls. In the San Diego area, a live Santa made just a single appearance this season at the Vieja Outlets, and is only showing his face on Saturdays at the Westfield Horton Plaza Mall. The Hazard Center mall decided not to bother with booking a Santa at all.

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Are Santa appearances fewer and farther between? Well, if they are, it’s not because he’s busier at this time of year (though of course he is), nor is it due to the so-called “War on Christmas.” Mostly, the Union-Tribune explains, the decision to skip or scale back on an in-person Santa Claus comes down to the demographics of the shopping center’s typical visitors:

“We are a destination shopping center (versus a mall) that caters specifically to those who work and live in Mission Valley,” Lisa Gualco, general manager for Hazard Center, said in an email. “As such, we want to keep their shopping experience quick, efficient and convenient throughout the holiday season.”

When the bulk of a mall’s shoppers are tourists, young singles, and older folks—basically anybody other than moms with young kids—there’s little reason to devote time, space, money, and energy for a large-scale “Meet Santa” section.

Last year, the Toronto Eaton Centre mall made news—and was the subject of many complaints—when it dropped the 100-year-old tradition of hosting Santa daily throughout the holidays. Santa instead started making appearances only on Saturdays and Sundays, and was only available for photos and story time with kids whose parents had reservations for a specific session with the big guy. The mall also offered evening sessions when children could chat with Santa via Skype from the comfort of their own homes.

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Florida‘s Sandestin Resort has also become a popular option for kids hoping to Skype with Santa. For some, however, Santa on a screen is no substitute for the “real” thing in person. Unfortunately, due to budgetary cutbacks or changing demographics, some malls aren’t bothering to book Santa(s) for the season. One melodramatic tearjerker nightly news segment featured the sad, odd situation of a mall Santa suddenly finding himself without a mall—after most of the stores in a shopping center in Missouri closed.

MarketWatch reported that finding a gig as Santa—which might pay between $5,000 and $15,000 for the season—has been especially difficult lately due to increased competition and a sluggish economy:

“There’s no question about it, the number of Santas out there looking for work has grown,” says Jennifer Andrews, headmaster of the Santa School in Calgary, Alberta, which supplies Santas to stores and malls in the U.S. and around the world. She says enrollment increased fourfold this year. “And there’s not a lot of room for untrained Santas.”