Each year, malls across America set up displays for children to take their picture with “Santa” — but sometimes these mall Santas are a far cry from jolly old St. Nick.

We have a weird tradition in America of taking children to the mall, letting them sit on a stranger’s lap, and paying money to have a photo taken of the moment. Of course, the stranger in question is Santa Claus — but not the real Santa. No, instead, children are taken to see creepy mall Santas.

That’s not to say every mall Santa is creepy or, inversely, that every creepy old man works as Santa at a mall.

In fact, the very first mall Santa — who was actually a department store Santa — put the red suit on because he wanted to spread Christmas cheer to all of the children who came into his store.

But that was back in 1890, and in the nearly century-and-a-half since then, the idea of Santa has become highly commodified.

Nearly every mall in America has a photo booth with a Santa and a long line of anxious children waiting to tell him what they want for Christmas. Fortunately for the malls, what the children want often happens to be up an escalator and to the left.

And because there are so many malls across the U.S., the job is sometimes given to people who might not be up to the task. Still, photos must be taken, and thankfully some of those captured moments feature laughably bizarre-looking Santas that now live on forever on the internet.

44 Creepy Mall Santas From Decades Past That Spread Christmas Fear

And if you’re wondering how this whole “Mall Santa” thing got started, you have an enterprising capitalist named James Edgar of Brockton, Massachusetts to thank.

The First ‘Mall Santa’

It was Christmastime, 1890 when James “Colonel Jim” Edgar, a Scottish immigrant and dry goods store owner, decided to introduce the world to the idea of having Santa make an appearance at local shopping spots.

According to Vale, Colonel Jim had always been fond of dressing up his store to make his customers happy. On more than one occasion, he dressed himself as a clown to entertain the children.

Then, one day, it occurred to him that “[Santa] is so far away… only able to see the children one day a year. He should live closer to them.”

Inspired by images that he saw in editions of Harper’s Weekly, Edgar ordered a custom-tailored Santa suit and traveled via train to Boston in order to pick it up.

Harper's Weekly Christmas Illustration

New-York Historical SocietyHarper’s Weekly, December 29, 1865.

When he returned and donned the suit, his customers were elated.

One customer later recalled the experience fondly, saying, “I remember walking down an aisle, and all of a sudden, right in front of me, I saw Santa Claus. I couldn’t believe my eyes. And then Santa came up and started talking to me. It was a dream come true.”

Edgar’s Santa getup was such a hit, in fact, that children began traveling to his little store from New York, Boston, Providence, and Worcester to see the jolly old man.

The next year, several major department stores had their own Santas — and this pretty much became the expectation by 1900.

However, taking your photo with Santa didn’t really kick off for another few decades.

Santa Sells: How A Beloved Christmas Icon Became A Commercial Asset

As writer Eliza Thompson reports in an article with Shutterstock, the trend of getting a souvenir photo with Santa Claus well and truly began in 1943 when a Seattle Post-Intelligencer photographer named Arthur French noticed a line of children outside a nearby Frederick & Nelson department store.

The next year, he took some time off from the paper and set up a small shop inside the department store, snapping candid photos of children with Santa and selling them to the kids’ parents.

R.H. Macy And Company Santa

Public DomainA family with Santa at the R.H. Macy and Company department store.

He was so successful, he did the same thing again in 1945 — and made $10,000 doing it, three times more than his annual salary.

In 1946, he quit the newspaper game for good and made his living snapping and selling photos of kids with Santa Claus, and later, the Easter Bunny.

Some of the oldest Santa photos feature different interpretations of Santa Claus, however. While we now associate Mr. Claus with a big belly, rosy cheeks, and a twinkle in his eye, prior to 1931, Santa ran the gamut from bald priest to pipe-smoking, portly old man.

What changed in 1931? Well, as it turns out, that was the first year that the Coca-Cola company featured Santa Claus in an advertisement. The ad was so popular and successful that it helped solidify the classic Santa appearance we still know today.

Coca Cola Santa Claus

Coca-ColaIn 1931, Coca-Cola hired artist Haddon Sundblom to design advertisements featuring Santa taking inspiration from Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas.”

Then, in 1947, the film A Miracle on 34th Street released, and mall Santas were cemented as a permanent piece of cultural lore. Meanwhile, children across America eagerly visited mall Santa, possibly with the secret hope that their local mall had been blessed by the one true Santa Claus.

Even now, with American mall culture well past its 1980s peak, mall Santa lives on.


After this look into the history of mall Santas — and some of the creepy photos that have resulted — check out these vintage Christmas advertisements, many of which are offensive, sexist, or just plain weird. Or, learn about 15 bizarre Santa Claus legends from around the world.

Austin Harvey

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