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Tales from the Santa Set: Corporate Spies

Editor’s note: The following is the second in a holiday series on Mike Mendenhall’s nightly gig as a mall Santa set photographer this Christmas season. He’s writing each column as it happens, so we never know what’s coming next.

The email said “Santa’s boots have to be in every shot.” This was going to seriously hinder my artistic freedom behind the camera, but the email to my Santa set supervisor brought to my attention something more distressing — I was being watched.

I had just finished that photo shoot with Santa holding an infant not two minutes before, and the photography company’s corporate overlords had already examined each image. It included one close-up of the baby next to Santa’s coral smile, but without the boots, corporate thinks the customer didn’t get their money’s worth.

It made me wonder, how many more of mine and other mall Santa photographers shots were being critiqued and examined in real time? I imagined these faceless corporate spies sitting behind a computer terminal in a windowless, white-walled data center 900 miles away — not a strand of garland or piece of tinsel in their life. Corporate was micro-managing its elves.

By the next day, I had become extra careful to make the composition of my photos as close to corporate uniformity as possible. Santa’s perfect smile and the children’s earnest need to tell St. Nick their Christmas list were the only things that saved the pictures.

Then, in a break between screaming babies and twin sisters in flannel onesies, our set supervisor called us to a huddle. The middle-aged blonde woman waiting in line with a family of six was a corporate regional vice president. She was sure of it. The likely VP was using her grand kids to test us — to make sure we were following Santa set policy and “keep them smiling” no matter how intense the behavior.

But would a national photography chain’s VP really waste her time coming to a Des Moines Santa set on a sting for Christmas cheer? Maybe she just looked like the VP.

The test started immediately. The roughly 4 and 5-year-old girls wore matching red, white and green-striped pajamas with red and green tutus, one incredibly squirmy. Their little brother was crying. While I used my trustee reindeer squeaky toy in an attempt to stop the tears, their mom informed us she wasn’t sure if they wanted a photo package, but that was just a diversion. Meanwhile, grandma (VP) pulled out her cellphone and was about to violate the no personal photos on set rule. My wife Betsy — our assistant head elf — quickly moved in and politely reminded grandma about the no cell phone pics rule and asked her to stand outside of the set if she wanted to take her own photos of the grand kids — two of whom were not listening to a single word Santa said.

The presumed VP complied and the family walked away — 45 minutes later, they were back. This time, the mother said they still weren’t sure if they wanted pictures, but to take them anyway, just in case. This increased our suspicions we were being tested.

The kids were no better behaved in round two. During the chaos, Santa never faltered and ho, ho, hoed at the squirmy girl and her siblings. They decided to leave without prints, but we made sure to hand the family their envelope and remind them the photos were available in our computer system all season if they changed their mind.

The family finally left. Betsy sent a text to the set supervisor to confirm her suspicions while I approached Santa’s chair with our conspiracy theory.

I told him corporate officers were testing us using their own families in mock scenarios. Santa’s smile dropped away, replaced with a pensive face. He thought for a second, then his cheeks puffed up again.

“Really?” he paused. “I don’t care. As long as the children are happy and I look good in the picture, that’s what matters. You’re doing well. I’ll override them.”

Contact Mike Mendenhall at

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