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Santa’s Scrapbook

Editor’s note: The following is the fourth 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 25 and 26-year-old brothers typically frame their photo taken with Santa Claus every year for themselves, but this holiday season the print is a gift.

They walked onto the set, shook hands with Santa and removed their overcoats to reveal holiday sweaters, brightly colored red and sky blue. Knitted into their tops were canary yellow Stars of David. The Hebrew symbol took all the real estate on the front of the sweaters. Their grandma is Jewish and this year’s picture with Mr. C was all about her.

The guys knew they were being a bit cheeky this Christmas season, and Santa loved it. After they left the set, Santa strolled over to the computer monitor and took a look at the session. He “ho, ho, ho-ed” and asked for a print for himself to add to his scrapbook.

Santa has been posing for pictures at this Des Moines mall since 2004, and about eight years ago began keeping albums of the best shots. This year he’s added pics of a “scantily clad elf” who posed in a green leather tunic unbuttoned to the chest, elf shoes, ears and hat with his two friends in ugly Christmas sweaters. He has a new portrait of a high school football team hugging each other like a staged prom picture. There is the photo of three men dressed like gangsta rappers with gold chains, baggie coats and one holding out a fan of cash. There are poses with dogs, cats and more painful crying baby pics than you can count.

But what Santa truly enjoys collecting are his letters. Back home (the North Pole), Santa has eight books, filled with every letter and list he’s ever received. Some are typed or have perfect handwriting with some obvious help from parents. Others are handwritten in marker or crayon, on notebook papers or the gray, lined newsprint we all remember from elementary school handwriting lessons.

Kids have asked him for everything from toy trains to real cars — last week a kid asked for a Lexus with a big bow “because it’s the December to Remember Sales Event.” But then there’s the letter I’ll never forget.

The young lady said her parents didn’t want to wait in our 45-minute long line, but she needed to make sure Santa got her list and letter. She handed me a folded piece of printer paper, handwritten in pen and crayon. The girl looked concerned, so I said, “You know what, I can’t give Santa your letter. Only you can do that. Do you want to meet him?”

The girl’s worry melted into a grin. The last family was still arguing over which terrified toddler photo to print, so I let this child hop the rope. It was just a quick hug and letter hand-off, but to the child, it meant so much more.

The girl skipped off. Santa looked at me and winked, “this is going in the book.”

Contact Mike Mendenhall

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