Mike Graham of Tennessee began his stint as Santa 37 years ago, when he slipped into the big red suit to fill in for a St. Nick missing from the Gatlinburg City Parade. Things just snowballed from there.
How did you get started playing Santa at Tysons Corner Center?
I met a guy at an antiques mall and he told me he worked for a photo company that was looking for more Santas. That company sent me up to Tysons for the first time, and we just had a tremendous response—so much so that mall management called me in to the office and said, “Would you like to work for us exclusively?” And I said yes, and I’ve been there for 34 years now.
Do kids ask you if you’re the real Santa Claus? What do you say?
Oh yeah. And not just the kids, but the adults. We have a tremendous amount of adults that come and they tell their friends. A lot of them have been coming since they were infants, and now they’re bringing their kids, and they say, “Are you the real Santa?” I always say, “Now what do you think? I’ll leave that up to you.”
How long does it take to get fully dressed as Santa?
Probably 30 minutes.
What’s the most unusual request you’ve gotten from a child?
I had a little boy who wanted a Mimosa tree. His parents were botanists, and he was dead set on it. He likes the pink blooms that are on those things. That has got to be the most bizarre request I’ve gotten.
Do you ever have to say “no”?
Well, I don’t say no very much. What I’ll often say instead is, “We’ll have to see.” If they have a lot of requests, I’ll sometimes say, “Man, those are such great choices. I can’t wait to choose from one of those.” Then the parents aren’t necessarily committed to what Santa says because they know what their child’s needs are.
How do you explain the naughty and nice list?
The kids always ask, “Am I on the naughty or nice list?” And the parents chime in that they’re on the naughty list. So what I say is, “There’s always room and time to make things right, so we need to do what Mommy and Daddy and our teachers ask us to do.” Also, a lot of parents will give me a heads-up, like, “Could you talk to them about this?” Or they will even sometimes hold up signs while the kids are looking at me.
Who’s your favorite reindeer?
Depends on who’s asking. When kids ask, I always tell them Rudolph. But otherwise, it would definitely have to be “Olive”—as in Olive, the other reindeer. There’s a little Santa humor in there.
The beard—real or not?
Oh, it’s real. I get tested all the time—and mostly from the adults. They just lean in and pull on my beard. To which I say, “Are you real?”