Jeanette Bennett, utahvalley360.com
After undergoing chemotherapy treatments last holiday season, a woman spent two hours watching from the second floor of the Provo Towne Centre as Santa hugged children, smiled for pictures and answered questions in only the way this Santa can. As Christmas Day neared, she came back and waited in line for an hour and a half to thank Santa for what he taught her.
“As she came through the line she was telling everyone why she was there,” Santa Mike says. “You see, she had never seen a Santa like me before that really enjoyed what I was doing and made each child feel that they got their individual time with Santa and could share a bit of their life with Santa.”
The now-smiling woman took several pictures of Santa so she could show her family the man who changed her life and made her see a bigger picture when she felt like her only world was her chemotherapy treatments.
Santa Mike had reminded her that joy and happiness come through loving and serving others, and this was her best Christmas gift.
Stories of Provo Towne Centre’s Santa are legendary. Shoppers tell of him reading books to sparkly-eyed kids or making magical eye contact with a droopy worker who needs a little pick-me-up. He is patient while the perfect picture is created, even though this isn’t a quick process with squirmy, anxious toddlers. And the lines? Let’s just say it’s a good thing the mall doesn’t have two-hour parking.
Regardless of the wait, kids of all ages keep coming. And Santa Mike has kept coming — this is his third year at his five-week post in Provo. And the mall couldn’t be more pleased to host this holiday institution, this miracle of a man who actually lives on 334th street in a place much colder than here, in a place north of here. And he prefers to remain a mystery.
“The parents will try to guess where I’m from, and some of them think they can pin down my accent,” Santa says. “Others try to guess my salary, but they are way off. But I like there being some mystery about who I am and where I’ve come from.”
And this mystique has guests of all ages wondering if he could be the real Santa.
A brother and sister came to Provo Towne Centre to see Santa last year. With the brother on one knee and the sister on the other, Santa listened to their requests. The brother rattled off all of the toys he was hoping for. The little girl said, “All I want for Christmas is a bell off of the harness of one of your reindeer. Then I’ll know you are Santa.” The siblings got off of his lap and went to pick up the photo Kiddie Kandids had taken of them with the jolly ol’ man. Santa followed them and pulled out a bell with a leather strap on it. He wrapped it around the little girl’s wrist, and the mother, with tears streaming down her face, hugged Santa and quietly said, “Thank you.”
Santa Mike gets a thrill from spreading joy and happiness for 37 straight days (with only Thanksgiving Day off) to the people in Utah County — and beyond.
“I’ve had people say they’ve traveled five and six hours to see me, including some from St. George and Wyoming,” Santa says.
Santa Mike originally had a choice of other places across the country to ho-ho-ho, and he chose Provo.
“The people are so accepting here,” Santa says. “This has been a heart-warming experience for me.”
Santa Mike, who is in his 40s, sees coming to Utah as a gift for him.
“I love the mountains,” he says. “I love looking out the windows of the mall and seeing the mountain so close.”
Santa Mike is not close to his family during this busy season, as he leaves his wife and three daughters behind. Although he’s nostalgic about missing the Christmas season with his family, they have adjusted to jolly ol’ Dad in Utah while they wait for his arrival back home on Christmas Day.
“Our family would always cut down a Christmas tree,” Santa Mike says. “And Thanksgiving Day has always been a big day for our extended family.”
But for Santa Mike, holidays are spent brightening Utah families’ Christmas spirit.
“I like the idea of being a Santa who is a long way away from home,” he says. While here, his temporary home is Provo’s Holiday Inn.
“I’m able to walk to work, and people wave to me and honk,” he chuckles.
Provo is ideal for the kind of Santa that Santa Mike is best at being.
“Provo isn’t a big metropolitan area, but it is large enough so that what I do works, and I like being a part of the community for the short time I am here.”
And he accomplishes a lot of lifting, asking, answering and waving during those 330 hours he’s in action.
“I have a friend who is Santa at the Mall of America in Minneapolis, and he was bragging about how he gave away 16,000 candy canes,” Santa says. “That’s nothing. My first year in Provo, I gave away 25,000 candy canes, and my second year I gave away 30,000 Christmas straws.”
But it’s about more than numbers to this Santa. He wants to make a connection with every person he heaves onto his lap. And thousands want to make a connection with him. Which is why the lines get unbelievably long.
But visitors will tell you that this Santa is worth the traffic and crowds.
“I think part of my popularity is that I love kids,” he says. “And people can sense that. Not everyone can deal with children all day long and not get upset or bothered when they are both naughty and nice. It takes a special person.”
And Santa Mike is that special person. He brings Christmas alive — and not just for those who still believe in reindeer and leaving cookies out on Christmas Eve.
“I enjoy seeing the parents’ faces when they bring their little ones to share their Christmas wish,” Santa says. “This holiday is about much more than children. Everyone’s hearts get involved.”
Including Provo’s infamous newlyweds.
A young bride waited an hour in line to ask Santa for a special gift. “What can you give me that will fix my marriage?”
But most of his visitors are far from asking for marriage advice.
In fact, the youngest to sit on Santa’s lap was two days old.
“I had a gal who brought her baby straight from the hospital to see me, and then she took the baby home for the first time,” Santa says with a belly laugh.
Although Santa asks his guests what they want for Christmas, the kids ask far more questions than Santa asks them.
“What are the names of your reindeer?”
“Where are your reindeer right now?”
“Are you the real Santa?”
In response to the last question, Santa Mike asks them, “Do I look like a real Santa?” And then he lets them tug on his beard, which convinces most of them of his authenticity.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have a real beard,” Santa Mike says. “I want to keep my religious integrity through all of this.”
Santa is a full-time minister when he’s not donning a red cap and big black boots. And at first, Santa Mike’s religious background seemed more like a hindrance than a help.
“To be absolutely honest, the biggest struggle that I’ve had is dealing with the contradiction of Christianity and what has become Christmas tradition, and I want to hold true to my faith,” Santa Mike says. “I don’t do this to spread my faith, but I look at it as a chance to be with kids and families and bring joy into people’s lives. For me, Christmas is Christ — he is the true meaning of Christmas as he is God’s gift to us.”
Being Santa has been an avenue for serving in ways he didn’t anticipate, as he’s able to bring joy and happiness to otherwise unhappy people.
“You can minister to people not only by sharing your faith but by being real,” he says.
This year-round minister and part-time Santa was a bit surprised at how an LDS community embraced him so quickly and feverishly.
“Things have just snowballed,” Santa Mike says. “After I had been in Provo for a couple weeks, the word of mouth was going out. Pretty soon the lines were so long I had to turn people away so I could go get some rest.”
One family of boys came and brought Santa gifts that he could give to needy children around the world. Their father handed Santa an envelope. Later that night, after Santa had taken off his bells and boots, he read the letter. The dad asked if Santa could give the boys a call to let them know that Santa cared about them and that he was real. The next Saturday morning, Santa called and wished them a merry Christmas.
“In the background I could hear the joy in the house as they were elated,” Santa says. “They had been questioning if I was the real Santa, and now they knew.”
Santa is for more than just the soft-hearted. Santa has been visited by many high school football players, and he prefers to sit on their laps.
But even Santa, with all of his special powers, gets tired.
“I try to take some time off to exercise and keep my mind occupied by reading,” Santa Mike says.
And he keeps his spirits high for his long, loving days.
So the question remains: Is this the real Santa?
Well, does it look like him?