When the coronavirus pandemic started in 2020, Macy’s announced that they would not be inviting Santa to visit their stores for the first time in 159 years. The popular department store claims to have pioneered this yearly tradition in 1861, but the truth behind the advent of mall Santas is a bit more complicated.

Despite Macy’s claims, there is really no evidence to back up the idea that Santa has been visiting them for 161 years. In fact, the origins of Macy’s elaborate Christmas window displays only date back to 1874, making it more likely that Santa didn’t become a fixture until after that.

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When did Santa Claus first come to town?

Instead, the first recorded instance of a department store Santa dates back to 1890, when James Edgar — owner of The Boston Store in Brockton, Massachusetts — dressed up as Santa Claus in a custom-made suit. The department store owner had a habit of dressing up in holiday-related costumes, mostly to drum up publicity. However, the day he came out dressed as Santa Claus, he had finally struck gold.

Edgar, himself, was something of a real-life Santa Claus at the time. He paid his employees very well and even turned 25 of them into shareholders prior to his death in 1909. His team remembered him as a kind and generous man who always put others before himself.

It’s possible that other stores hosted a Santa without taking any photos or leaving any records. There’s also a good chance other stores hosted a Santa Claus that doesn’t look like the man we know today. But as far as the Santa popularized by Macy’s, The Salvation Army, and Coca-Cola, his origins appear to lie in The Boston Store.

Children from neighboring states traveled to see Santa Claus in Brockton. However, it didn’t take long for other department stores to follow in Edgar’s footsteps. By the turn of the 20th century, Santa was making yearly appearances at Macy’s and department stores everywhere. A new tradition had been formed and it wasn’t going anywhere soon.

Now that there are Santas everywhere, where do they come from?

But who exactly are all these mall Santas now? There must be thousands of them at this point!

According to 22-year-old mall Santa Caleb Sigmon, in an interview with ABC, it’s no walk in the park. “I had to go through a lot to get my foot in the door with the company I work for. I submitted tons of photos and had to go through several interviews,” he told the outlet. “I also had to pass a background check and drug screening.”

There’s even a Noerr Programs Santa University where potential mall Santas receive training and are then dispatched to malls across the country.

In Sigmon’s case, he spends 400 hours of the holiday season dressed as Santa. Like most mall Santas, dressing up isn’t Sigmon’s only gig. He does all of this in addition to working at a theatre company and teaching. In the interview, he also reveals how tight-knit the mall Santa community really is.

“We swap stories, advice, and encouragement throughout the season, but rarely get to visit in person,” Sigmon said. “I am so busy during the Christmas season that I never get to see anyone else in action.” Although the Santas aren’t usually able to meet in person, online message boards keep the Kris Kringles connected.

In a profile published by Mental Floss, mall Santa RG Holland explained there’s even a secret code amongst mall Santas. “I’ll go up and ask him if he’s being good this year,” he said. “That’s a giveaway.” The small army of mall Santas calls themselves “Brothers in Red.”

They do pretty well for just a few weeks of work

A vast majority of mall Santas have non-seasonal jobs to go back to once Christmas is over. But working as a Santa through the holiday season can be pretty lucrative. Some veteran mall Santas claim to have made about $30,000 for a few weeks’ work.

Of course, the longer a mall Santa is in the game, the more money they can make. But it’s no easy feat. In major cities, some Santas see literally tens of thousands of children during one holiday season. Because Santa doesn’t get a break all day, the work can be taxing both physically and mentally.

“The most important thing they need to understand is that they are Santa and they always are to remain in character of Santa,” said Ruth Rosenquist, Director of PR at Noerr. “They’re never to break that character.” Some Santas go the extra mile and are on their best behavior year-round so they don’t upset any nearby children.

But also, don’t make Santa’s job harder than it already is

If you do take your kids to see Santa this year at the mall, do ol’ Saint Nick a favor. Meet him halfway. There’s one thing all mall Santas can agree on. The parents make things way harder than they need to be.

“Some of these people slug their kids around like they’re 10 lb bags of potatoes,” said veteran mall Santa Paul Sheehan. “I had a woman in the mall who almost tossed the child to me. She let go of the kid before I had a grip on the kid, then walked away and was wondering why the child was crying.”

“Parents are the worst part of the whole thing of being Santa,” he added. Ah, the magic of Christmas!