It’s 10 AM at Tysons Corner Center and Santa Claus is riding down an escalator waving to confused toddlers. OK, this isn’t the North Pole and Santa’s real name is Mike Graham, but that doesn’t diminish the joy he’s about to deliver to these kids. For the last 26 years, Graham has been the mall’s resident Kris Kringle, asking tens of thousands of kids (and adults) what they want for Christmas. With his real beard, white hair, and burly stature, Tennessee-native Graham doesn’t just play the part well—for many in the region, he is Santa Claus.
“I’m part of their family,” he says. “I only see [kids] for a fraction of their lives, but the pictures of us are always there on the mantle.”
Graham’s Santa career started in Gatlinburg, Tennessee in 1987. He was helping to build floats for the city’s annual Christmas parade when he got word that the man scheduled to play Santa Claus suffered a heart attack. Graham stepped into the red suit and saved Christmas, or at least the parade.
Afterward, a spectator who had admired Graham’s performance told him that he had signed with a photo company to be their Santa “for what seemed like a ridiculous amount of money.” Graham called the phone number the man offered and, the next year, he was set up to be a Santa in far-flung locations. First, he was dispatched to Nashville. In 1988, the company sent Graham to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he made a grand entrance on a sleigh drawn by a team of live reindeer. A year later, Graham requested a transfer to Hawaii; instead he got Tysons Corner Center.
But Graham was a hit. Halfway through the season, the mall management approached him with huge stacks of comment cards about how great he was with the kids and how well he resembled Santa Claus. “Everyone loved the natural beard,” says Graham. Tysons Corner Center asked him to work there exclusively—which, according to Graham, is exceedingly rare for mall Santa’s—and he’s been a holiday regular ever since.
Santa season at Tysons lasts from the week before Thanksgiving until 5 PM Christmas Eve. Every year, Graham drives from his hometown of Sevierville, Tennessee, where he owns a construction company, and stays in the area for the duration. On a typical December weekday, he says he sees about 600 kids, with many more flowing through as Christmas approaches. The wait to sit on Graham’s lap can reach up to four-and-a-half hours, although the mall does take reservations. Not surprisingly, demand peaks on December 24. “People are trying to be the last ones on Santa’s lap before he goes to take the flight,” Graham says.
Graham’s day typically starts an hour before he has to be “on-set.” It only takes him about 20 minutes to get into character, but he likes to be early.
Graham own three Santa suits, in addition to one he calls a “leisure suit” that he often wears on weekdays. They are all custom-made by Adele’s of Hollywood in Los Angeles. “My suits are not the inexpensive kind,” Graham says. “They are all velvet and real rabbit fur. Very, very durable.”
And even with his girthy frame, Graham does wear a fat suit. Every morning, he makes a grand entrance via escalator, bellowing “ho-ho-ho” and waving to the waiting children below. Over the nearly three decades he’s been coming to Tysons, Graham says the only time he’s missed work is when his mother-in-law died.
Raising three children of his own helped Graham hone his Santa act. He never asks the mall kids if they have been bad or good, simply what they would like Christmas. Graham says there are plenty of kids who’ve been good who may not get a lot and some “not-so-happy kids” who’ll get a big haul. He does not think it’s fair to connect the amount of presents to behavior. While Graham says that kids themselves haven’t changed a whole lot since he started in 1989, the biggest difference he’s noticed is what they ask for. Today they mostly want electronic toys, he says, but there are exceptions. One boy, whose parents were botanists, asked for a mimosa tree.
At 58, Graham hopes to play Santa for another 30 years so he can see another generation of kids grow up. “When they come see me, [parents] don’t have to explain why [Santa] looks different,” he says. “It’s continuity.”