I met Santa Claus at the Hamilton Place mall office on a clear, hot, autumn day. He arrived to the boardroom sporting a white button-down and a gold-embroidered vest. In his fist, he clutched his signature red fur-trimmed hat.
"I don't need this in the Southeast," Santa said, holding it up. "But up in the stratosphere it's a lot colder."
He paused in the doorframe and glanced to where I was seated across the table.
"You're much bigger than the last time I saw you," he said. "Do you still have that dolly I brought you?"
Santa is a towering man, standing 6 feet tall. In his presence it was easy to feel like a child again. But, I reminded myself, I was a 35-year-old journalist. To arrange this meeting had taken weeks of back and forth between the mall marketing director and myself. I was there to get the Santa exclusive.
Santa, or Santa "Rich" as he is known by mall personnel, has been visiting Hamilton Place for the past eight years — though, he told me, he's been coordinating Christmas itself for more than 375 years. Each year, the Hamilton Place mall-iday begins in early November and continues through Christmas Eve. During that time, "if the mall's open, I'm here," he said.
Throughout the rest of the year, Santa Rich told me, he is home in the North Pole, where he, Mrs. Claus and the elves stay busy year-round. Mrs. Claus is responsible for supervising the elves.
"If she doesn't, the elves will just build one toy and play with it. They're basically children, though they're very, very old — like 600 to 700 years old," he said. Then, with a twinkle, Santa Rich added, "I don't know exactly how old I am, but I know I'm younger than that."
A few years ago, Santa Rich was banned from the elves' workshop, mostly, he said, because of his size. He kept getting in the way of their drone test flights. But, he admits, the dismissal did come shortly after the elves unionized, which Rudolph orchestrated.
"We pay the elves in candy canes and brownies now," Santa Rich told me.
Santa Rich still has plenty to do elsewhere. The very day after Christmas, he begins research for the following year. Some toys stand the test of time and show up on lists year after year: bikes, dolls, stuffed toys, for example. "But I get notes sometimes and I have to be like, 'What in the world is a ZhuZhu Pet?'" he said, adding, "And we're working on being able to do hoverboards. We're just looking for a supplier."
I flashed back to when I was 7 years old. Months before Christmas, I had seen a lonely-looking plush puppy at Kmart. My heart had ached for it. To prevent anyone from buying it, I had hidden the toy. Then, I had written Santa countless notes begging for it. Alas, come Christmas morning, the toy was not beneath the tree.
Not all requests are within his wheelhouse, Santa Rich told me, as if reading my mind. Over the years, he has had some children — and adults, too — ask for presents he simply cannot deliver.
Once, a kindergarten-aged boy visited him at the mall and asked for a shotgun and a moustache.
"I'll have to talk to your mom and dad about the shotgun," Santa Rich told him. As for the moustache, he told the boy to let a cat lick his upper lip. "Maybe that'll help, but you might just have to wait," Santa Rich had said.
Another time, Santa Rich was visiting with children when a man leaned across the velvet partition rope and shouted, "Why didn't you bring me that blue-eyed blonde I asked for?"
Santa Rich responded, "You didn't like that Barbie I brought you? I'm just a simple toymaker."
Santa Rich, after all, cannot perform miracles — like finding a lone plush puppy stashed beneath bath towels in Kmart's linen section. That Christmas, I remember worrying that perhaps hiding that toy had landed me on the "naughty" list.
But, Santa Rich assured me, that list is always minuscule.
"We all have the propensity for good and evil," he said. "Even Santa messes up. Sometimes I pop off at Mrs. Claus. I have to apologize and go back and do better. We all make mistakes, but it's a choice. You can always get back on the 'nice' list."
Besides, the true meaning of Christmas isn't material.
Every year, Santa Rich said families visit him at the mall to have their portraits taken, and sometimes, they bring eye-rolling teenagers. Before the photo, Santa Rich pulls those teens aside.
"You're on the wrong Santa level," he tells them. "Would you want to stay on the same Mario Bros. level your whole life? Of course not. It's time you get to a different Santa level. Anonymous giving, that's what I'm talking about — to learn to give without expecting anything in return."
And that, says Santa Rich, is the spirit of Christmas.