With the holiday spirit in full swing, some might say Driver Stewart S. appears to be a little jollier than normal, and that’s par for the course. Stewart doubles as a mall Santa and has even published a book called Diary of a Mall Santa to share the experience from behind the velvet ropes. “I’d been writing all my life,” says Stewart. “After hearing the things I heard, I decided to keep a journal by my chair to jot down all of the interesting stories.”
The magic of a white, synthetic beard
It all started about six years ago. Stewart had recently retired as a copywriter at an advertising agency in Chicago when he got a call from an old friend asking if he knew anyone who could be Santa at a local shopping mall. With five grown children of his own, he jumped at the chance.
“About 30 years ago when my children were young, the doorbell rang one Christmas Eve when we weren’t expecting guests,” Stewart recounts. “When I opened the door, Santa and Mrs. Santa were standing there bearing gifts for my children — all of whom they knew by name. To this day, I don’t know who those people were. But ever since that experience, I’ve wanted to return the favor and play Santa Claus for someone else.”
After a brief training session, Stewart entered Santa’s magical mall-side kingdom and embarked on a seven-day-a-week, 10-hours-a-day adventure from Thanksgiving to Dec. 25 that he calls the job of a lifetime.
“Playing Santa is a magical and fulfilling experience, but no amount of coaching could have prepared me for the job,” Stewart says. “I’ve had to learn and react with each new day. Some of the things I heard were heartwarming, some were irreverent and others were heartbreaking.”
Santa’s most memorable visitors
Of the thousands of tales he’s listened to over the years, a few in particular stand out. One of those was a nine-year-old girl named Isabel. “She asked for a house for her parents and a job for her daddy, but nothing for herself,” Stewart says. “She made quite an impression on me that day — she’s definitely one I’ll never forget.”
For every heartbreaking encounter, though, Stewart says there’s one to counter it. “I once had a middle-aged woman sit on my leg and whisper to me that I had 200 pounds of fun sitting on my lap,” Stewart says with a laugh. “I’ve also skimmed through a five-and-a-half-foot long wish list of more than 140 items for one child, and I’ve had my share of young visitors sporting soiled pants,” he adds.
Regardless of what a child asks for, Stewart says his No. 1 goal is to make sure all of the children know they are loved. “I always thought Santa was magical,” Stewart says. “So, I do everything I can to encourage believers and keep that magic alive.”
Santa after hours
When not dressed in a red suit, Stewart takes the same pride in his off-season job, too.
With his sleigh parked at the North Pole, Stewart helps the Chicago Group deliver new vehicles to its branches and also takes cars retiring out of the rental fleet to dealerships and auctions.
“Stewart is a top notch driver and a great employee,” says Chuck H., Fleet Logistics Supervisor. “He’s honest, dedicated and shows pride in the work he does for the business, and just like the elves on the North Pole, we are fortunate to have him on our team.”