Throne of Lies

Are Malls Dead? Maybe, but Mall Santa Isn’t

Eighty years after a Seattle photographer snapped the first Santa picture, the tradition still feels like magic.

By Zoe Sayler December 4, 2023

Image: Gary Taxali

Are malls dead? Ask any Seattleite under 25 what they think of when they hear “Northgate.” But show up at the mall on a weekend post-Thanksgiving, squint a little, and you might mistake 2023 for the heyday of the shopping center. 

Pyramids of candy-striped peppermint Frangos spill out of the Southcenter Macy’s and onto the concourse. Rudolph and his crew dangle magically from the vaulted ceiling at Bellevue Square. And at shopping centers across Washington, Santa himself sits in wait for throngs of children in fur-collared dresses and plaid bow ties—an occasion so special, even Seattle kids break out the formalwear. 

“I can’t remember the last time I was in a mall,” my brother remarks as we wait in Bellevue Square’s elaborately decorated Snowflake Lane Factory, behind about a dozen families with online reservations (the attendant squeezed us in as walk-ins, but just barely). My six-year-old niece checks her gift-bow headband and patent leather mary janes in the mirror and dutifully presses a button that claims to make snow. 

She doesn’t know it, but she’s dressed for an illustrious local occasion: the 80th anniversary of the Santa photo, which purportedly got its start at the downtown Seattle Frederick and Nelson department store in 1943. 

A lot has changed since an enterprising Seattle Post-Intelligencer photographer named Arthur French turned the festive meet-and-greet into a profitable photo opp. Blocks from where the Naval Reserve Armory trained WWII recruits at the time of the first Santa photos, Amazon now commands an international convoy of ever-faster shipments; on the street where an estimated 25,000 shoppers gathered to visit Frederick and Nelson on its 1918 opening day, Nordstrom employees now hustle silver bagfuls of clothes to curbside customers who did their shopping online.

The magic of Santa is alive at Bellevue Square. 

And the mall, forever associated with Santa photos through iconic pop culture moments like the “throne of lies” from Elf and the “you’ll shoot your eye out, kid!” scene from A Christmas Story, has fallen far from its former place of glory. Bellevue Collection’s upscale shopping experience and University Village’s impeccable management have helped them buck the trend, but not without great effort.

Despite vast shifts in the retail landscape, though, shockingly little about the Santa photo experience has changed since that snowless December in 1943. 

With the exception of the past few lean pandemic years, during which time Saint Nick doled out reindeer masks and socially starved children cried extra hard on this stranger’s lap, demand for Santa photos appears to be as strong as ever. “It’s essential,” says the photographer in Santa’s Cabin at University Village, who’s served alongside the big guy for more than two decades. He’s photographed dogs, cats, a miniature pig, and the children of children he once photographed; one woman even brought her 1973 Frederick and Nelson snapshot with her this year to celebrate her 50th time on Santa’s lap. 

“It’s just been one joy after another,” a naturally white-bearded Santa tells me, so committed to the role after more than a decade that he prefers to stick with the moniker than use his real name. “I feel I have a calling to do this.” 

He’s one of a small cadre of about a dozen mostly retired men who run the Santa circuit in Seattle (though if you ask an employee at Snowflake Lane, they’ll tell you with a twinkle in their eye that there’s “only one”). Nordstrom’s lineup this year includes a Black Santa, a Santa who uses ASL, Santa who’s been working the gig for 25 years, and one who’s brand-new. 

Volunteer divers in faux beards read a marine-themed version of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas at the Seattle Aquarium. 

These days, Kris Kringle lands his sleigh everywhere from the Northwest African American Museum’s Black Santa popup to the Seattle Aquarium, where mic’d volunteer divers in faux beards read a marine-themed version of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas from behind a foot of plexiglass for awed kids and parents. “You’re not just putting on a suit and going down there and reading a story,” says Jeff Renner, a volunteer diver who wrote the aquatic parody. “You really want to make it positive, you want to make it fun, and you want to make sure all the children are feeling included.”

Maybe it’s wishful thinking to imagine that the fate of the mall and the fate of the Santa photo aren’t inextricably linked. But to be involved in Santa photos is to commit yourself fully to the suspension of disbelief—yours, and everyone else’s, too. “What does it feel like?” The white-bearded Santa ponders this question for a moment. “Magical and joyful.” 

Imbuing the mall, of all places, with a bit of that magic in 2023? That’s something only Santa could do.