December 8, 2012

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

The roles are reversed as 2-year-old William Burke of Gray hands a candy cane to Santa as grandmother Elizabeth Burke watches at the Maine Mall in South Portland on Friday. This Santa replaces a previous one at the mall who drew some complaints.

Santa's boots tough to fill

By Avery Yale Kamila
Staff Writer

It takes special qualities to play Santa Claus.

A grumpy personality isn't one of them.

"I guess a genuine love for kids is what it takes," said Peter Castonia, 65, of Cumberland, who has been a Santa for more than 25 years. "I've never gotten cranky with the kids. They're too much fun."

The Maine Mall and its Santa learned the hard way this week when upset parents took to social media to complain about him, accusing the mall Santa of being rude and mean and giving kids dirty looks.

The mall responded quickly, sacking Santa, replacing him with a jollier one and making it clear that parents don't have to pay for a photo to have a child sit with Santa. The sacked Santa was not available for comment.

"We as mall employees and the Santas themselves cannot comment on Santa Claus," said the mall's marketing coordinator, Stefanie Millette. "We have to keep up the mystery."

She did say that the Maine Mall contracts with Worldwide Photography of Houston, which hires (and fires) the Santas and does background checks.

"Our job is to make sure everybody who goes through the set has a joyful and magical experience, and if that doesn't happen we correct the situation," said Steve Hardin, president of Worldwide Photography.

Even though the mall is not directly responsible for its Santa, Millette said, "We monitor the Santa set pretty closely and tell Worldwide if it's not working out."

Millette said the mall's management knew that the Santa was having "difficulty" so it was "in the process of making a little bit of change in staff. It was being done quietly and privately, and it just snowballed" once the complaints hit Facebook.

A new Santa was in the mall Thursday.

A few Mainers who play Santa at this time of year say that, to do it successfully, one needs a love of children, a great deal of patience and an appreciation for the childhood belief in Father Christmas.

"The most important thing is, no matter what you do with children, don't be rushed," said David Knight of West Baldwin, who has been playing Santa for 30 years and has the white beard to prove it.

Knight, 66, who does numerous community events and holds court at O'Donal's Nursery in Gorham, is known for getting down on the floor to read books with timid children.

"Give them the time until they're ready to leave," he said. "That's one of the reasons I find it very difficult to see people in a mall situation, because three minutes isn't enough."

Knight said people skills are even more critical for working with children with autism, people with physical or mental disabilities, and very young children with limited vocabularies.

"You have to have a bit of personality and you have to enjoy interacting with people," Knight said.

State Rep. Joe Brooks of Winterport fills Santa's chair at the Bangor Mall at this time of year. In the 10 years he has played Santa, he has paid visits to hospitals, nursing homes and day care centers.

He said one of the biggest challenges of the job is the cultural shift to being more litigious and highly critical of others.

"People are quicker to complain," Brooks said. "No one who has ever been in this role has ever been complaint-free. As long as those issues were unfounded, the Santa goes on. We all have to be held to very, very high standards."

"Most of my stuff has been at nonprofits or in private homes, where maybe I haven't run into as much of the public sentiment as I have at the mall," Brooks said.

But even at the mall, he said, praise far outweighs the unhappy visitors.

For Brooks, "The biggest rewards I get are the hugs I get from kids." 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

Peter Castonia of Cumberland says portraying Santa requires a genuine love for children. Castonia doesn’t charge for his services but instead asks that donations be made to the Bruce Roberts Toy Fund.

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