Confessions of a mall Santa: Inside the head of the man in red
by Brooke Carbo
Dec 22, 2013 | 2305 views |  0 comments | 35 35 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Santa, aka Dale Smith, reads letters from children at Quintard Mall Thursday. Trent Penny/The Anniston Star
Santa, aka Dale Smith, reads letters from children at Quintard Mall Thursday. Trent Penny/The Anniston Star
Meet Dale Smith. By day he’s a mild-mannered grandfather of three, a former Southern Baptist preacher who grew up in Ohio and works from his home in Oxford where he’s lived quietly for almost 20 years.

By winter’s night, however, this unassuming man with the dimples and twinkle and nose like a cherry goes by a different name: Claus. Santa Claus.

Between making his list and checking it twice, the Quintard Mall Santa offered to shed some light on the man behind the sleigh.

Q: When did you become Santa Claus?

A: From the time I was 8, I knew one day I would be Santa. That was the year I found out — I had a long talk with my dad about Santa. But instead of it being a sad moment, I was excited. I realized I could be Santa to my little brother, and when I have kids I get to be Santa to them. Every Christmas from then on, I was like, “Can I help put out the toys? Can I help eat the cookies?”

I didn’t start looking like Santa till about four years ago. My father passed away a few years ago and my mother was very ill. I took a few weeks and went by myself to be with her. When I came back, I hadn’t shaved and my beard was white. My wife and daughter looked at me and said, “You should grow it out and play Santa.”

My daughters are really excited. They can’t wait to bring the kids to see “Santa PopPop.”

Q: So what are the kids asking Santa for these days?

A: They’re all into technology — iPads, iPods, iPhones, tablets, all the gaming systems. It’s getting younger and younger, too. I had a 5-year-old last week tell me he wants an iPad and a tablet. They don’t know what it does; they just know they want one.

Remote control cars and helicopters are still in the top 10 — with boys and girls. A lot of girls also ask for the American Girl dolls and accessories. And they all know which one is their doll, which one looks like them.

When they ask for phones, I tell them Santa has rules he has to follow, too — Mom and Dad will have to OK this. You get a lot of “Oh, Mom says it’s OK,” but Mom is sitting there shaking her head no, no, no, no, no!

Q: What else is on their mind when they take their turn in Santa’s lap?

A: I get to hear about their Elves on the Shelf. They want to tell me all about what their elves are doing. I get questions like, “How do you know where my grandmother’s house is?” and “How will you get inside our hotel room?” I usually carry a big ring of keys with me. I flip through the keys and show them one and I say “See this key is a magic key. It opens the door to all of the houses in Alabama, Arkansas and Alaska and Arizona. And if I turn it upside down, now it will open all the homes in Australia.”

Q: What does Santa do on the off season?

A: All the girls are asking for the “Frozen” character dolls. I keep telling them after Christmas Santa is going to sit down and watch it. You have to know your Christmas movies. You need to stay up on culture and the new toys.

A few years back the big thing was Squinkies — these little rubber dolls about an inch or so tall. I thought they were saying Slinky. No, they said; they had to explain it to me. After about the third or fourth girl to ask for a Squinky, I went down to the toy store to see for myself.

It’s really a culture that you pour yourself into all year. I spend hours watching old movies and reading the Santa forums. There are several thousand members on sharing lots of different stories. There are Santa conventions where you can find out who has the latest suit and accessories. For a lot of these guys, it’s a way of life.

Q: Are you ever recognized on the street?

A: Absolutely — I don’t wear red out in public for that very reason. You can’t hide the beard though. I will usually tell them that Santa’s on vacation or he’s just down here checking things out.

Once I was at a shoe store over at the (Oxford) Exchange, not even that close to Christmas, and two little boys were running around — not misbehaving, just playing. One came running up and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw me, and the second one crashed into his back. I smiled and said, “Now who’s being naughty and who’s being nice?” They both pointed their finger at the other one.

Q: Do you ever catch kids misbehaving on their visits?

A: Kids say what kids say. Occasionally you hear something Mom and Dad are terribly embarrassed over. I once had a little girl say to me, “Santa, did you know my mom and dad wrestle in the bed? One time I went in there and Mom shut the door.” All her poor mom could do was stand there looking shocked.

Q: What is the best part of getting to be Santa?

A: The joy you see on a child’s face. So many come running in and give you the biggest hug. Their total ability to love unconditionally —that’s so refreshing to see in a small child.

Assistant Features Editor Brooke Carbo: 256-235-3581. On Twitter @star_features.

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