44 Creepy Mall Santas From Decades Past That Spread Christmas Fear
By Austin Harvey | Edited By Maggie Donahue
Published December 20, 2022
Each year, malls across America set up displays for children to take their picture with "Santa" — but sometimes these mall Santas are a far cry from jolly old St. Nick.
We have a weird tradition in America of taking children to the mall, letting them sit on a stranger’s lap, and paying money to have a photo taken of the moment. Of course, the stranger in question is Santa Claus — but not the real Santa. No, instead, children are taken to see creepy mall Santas.
That’s not to say every mall Santa is creepy or, inversely, that every creepy old man works as Santa at a mall.
In fact, the very first mall Santa — who was actually a department store Santa — put the red suit on because he wanted to spread Christmas cheer to all of the children who came into his store.
But that was back in 1890, and in the nearly century-and-a-half since then, the idea of Santa has become highly commodified.
Nearly every mall in America has a photo booth with a Santa and a long line of anxious children waiting to tell him what they want for Christmas. Fortunately for the malls, what the children want often happens to be up an escalator and to the left.
And because there are so many malls across the U.S., the job is sometimes given to people who might not be up to the task. Still, photos must be taken, and thankfully some of those captured moments feature laughably bizarre-looking Santas that now live on forever on the internet.
And if you liked this post, be sure to check out these popular posts:
1 of 45
Original Caption: “Christmas 1985. Every time I see this photo, I wonder how on Earth I sat there calmly? I mean, look at the dude on the left.”Awkward Family Photos
2 of 45
Original Caption: “Me and my twin sister getting traumatized in Middlesbrough, 1981 by Santa and his devil doll clowns.”Awkward Family Photos
3 of 45
Santa is giving some serious side-eye here, but the hand-in-the-shape-of-a-claw really solidifies the threatening nature. Facebook
4 of 45
Original Caption: "Santa smelled like cigarettes, B.O. and whiskey. My sister was NOT into it, and I was super excited that she was throwing a fit."Awkward Family Photos
5 of 45
We can't expect Santa's makeup to look perfect every day, but this is some truly horrendous work. Facebook
6 of 45
Perhaps the only thing worse than a grown man in a Santa suit is a terrifying doll in a Santa suit. Facebook
7 of 45
It is not 100 percent clear whether this is an old photo of a woman standing next to someone dressed as Santa Claus, or if she has accidentally summoned a demon. Facebook
8 of 45
Original Caption: “Mom, there’s a reason there wasn’t a line to see this Santa…"Awkward Family Photos
9 of 45
A good rule of thumb for any Santa is to not look like you've just actively engaged in a drunken pub brawl. Or, at the very least, smile for the photo.Facebook
10 of 45
Original Caption: “My little girl in 2012 with a very sauced looking Santa.”Awkward Family Photos
11 of 45
There is absolutely nothing jolly about this Santa. Facebook
12 of 45
Half of Santa's lasting charm is that he brings children presents on Christmas. The other half is that he's a jolly, old, bearded man with a twinkle in his eye, which is conspicuously absent in this absolute monstrosity of a mask. Facebook
13 of 45
Christmastime, 1912. Santa was apparently much more Slenderman-like before the 1940s.Facebook
14 of 45
Original Caption: “I don’t remember having this photo taken, but every time I look at it as an adult, I am horrified that I was planted on Santa’s lap. He couldn’t look any less excited about his job... I’m looking a little uncertain about the whole thing as well! Bet there wasn’t a 'ho, ho, ho' greeting involved here!”Awkward Family Photos
15 of 45
December 1963, Garden Grove, California. Awkward Family Photos
16 of 45
Original Caption: “In Yugoslavia, we had very scary Santas in the 1980s.”Awkward Family Photos
17 of 45
There's nothing inherently creepy about anything Santa is doing, he's just unsettlingly ecstatic.Facebook
18 of 45
Original Caption: “Me and the creepiest Santa ever. 1977."Awkward Family Photos
19 of 45
There is a feeling of murderous rage to Santa's smile here.Facebook
20 of 45
Original Caption: “The memories around this pic are fuzzy, I suspect that I have blocked out Santa trying to lift my shirt and/or pinch my nipple. If I had to guess, I was probably around four years old (1979). Clearly, I am horrified by the look on my face.”Awkward Family Photos
21 of 45
Another good rule for Santas is to try your best not to look as if you're about to abduct a child. Facebook
22 of 45
There are a few things wrong here, but chiefly is that it's difficult to tell if this man is supposed to be Santa, or if he was just an old man who happened to be passing by. Facebook
23 of 45
Santa masks. No. Facebook
24 of 45
Original Caption: “This is me in 1970 when I was 5 and meeting a Santa who had face-boobs.”Awkward Family Photos
25 of 45
Santa Claus showing off his Santa claws. Facebook
26 of 45
Original Caption: “Posing with (a creepy, lol) Santa Claus and reindeer at Kresge's Department Store in Lafayette, Indiana, USA - 1947”Facebook
27 of 45
As far as Santas go, this one at least looks the part. The problem is that Santa really shouldn't be laughing maniacally as a child cries on his lap. Facebook
28 of 45
Original Caption: "This photo was taken in 1972 when I was almost 2. Not sure why I was scared but looking at the picture 40 years later, the deadly grip Santa had on me..."Awkward Family Photos
29 of 45
As a tradition, visiting Santa at the mall is a bit strange. As a marketing tool, it's genius. As a child, it's traumatizing. Facebook
30 of 45
Either a very angry Santa or a man photographed in a moment of panic as he tries to catch a falling child while maintaining his photo smile. Facebook
31 of 45
Original Caption: “We dug this gem up recently. None of us realized how creepy the Santa was except our baby sister. We still aren’t sure where the camera actually was.”Awkward Family Photos
32 of 45
Well, someone made the naughty list. Facebook
33 of 45
Original Caption: “My memories of meeting Santa are fond ones. I came across this pic, however, and was startled by the look on this particular Santa’s face. He looks a little less interested in what I want for Christmas, and a little more interested in how I’d taste in a stew.”Awkward Family Photos
34 of 45
It could be the beard that doesn't quite cover the face, the hunched over posture, or the lack of any attempt at smiling or looking at the camera — but something about this Santa screams hangover. Facebook
35 of 45
Santa Claus is, technically, a home invader. Facebook
36 of 45
If eyes are the windows to the soul, then this Santa has no soul.
37 of 45
Original Caption: “Me and my sister, Christmas in Chile 1996. Apparently the Santa we visited had a second job and was also a clown on the same day (there was full clown makeup under the beard).”Awkward Family Photos
38 of 45
Disco Santa. Facebook
39 of 45
This Santa is either a wise old wizard or threatening someone off-camera. Facebook
40 of 45
Actually, Santa is fine. It's the velvet chair she hates. Facebook
41 of 45
Santa is allegedly immortal, but he does evidently age. Facebook
42 of 45
Original Caption: “That’s me in the lap of a suburban D.C. mall Santa circa Christmas, 1976 when I was 4. I would love to know why Santa’s face matches his suit.”Awkward Family Photos
43 of 45
1925. Posted with the title, "My mom’s uncle and aunts with a creepy Santa."Reddit
44 of 45
Original Caption: "The day I stopped believing in Santa Claus."Awkward Family Photos
44 Creepy Mall Santas From Decades Past That Spread Christmas Fear
And if you're wondering how this whole "Mall Santa" thing got started, you have an enterprising capitalist named James Edgar of Brockton, Massachusetts to thank.
The First 'Mall Santa'
It was Christmastime, 1890 when James "Colonel Jim" Edgar, a Scottish immigrant and dry goods store owner, decided to introduce the world to the idea of having Santa make an appearance at local shopping spots.
According to Vale, Colonel Jim had always been fond of dressing up his store to make his customers happy. On more than one occasion, he dressed himself as a clown to entertain the children.
Then, one day, it occurred to him that "[Santa] is so far away... only able to see the children one day a year. He should live closer to them."
Inspired by images that he saw in editions of Harper's Weekly, Edgar ordered a custom-tailored Santa suit and traveled via train to Boston in order to pick it up.
New-York Historical SocietyHarper's Weekly, December 29, 1865.
When he returned and donned the suit, his customers were elated.
One customer later recalled the experience fondly, saying, "I remember walking down an aisle, and all of a sudden, right in front of me, I saw Santa Claus. I couldn't believe my eyes. And then Santa came up and started talking to me. It was a dream come true."
Edgar's Santa getup was such a hit, in fact, that children began traveling to his little store from New York, Boston, Providence, and Worcester to see the jolly old man.
The next year, several major department stores had their own Santas — and this pretty much became the expectation by 1900.
However, taking your photo with Santa didn't really kick off for another few decades.
Santa Sells: How A Beloved Christmas Icon Became A Commercial Asset
As writer Eliza Thompson reports in an article with Shutterstock, the trend of getting a souvenir photo with Santa Claus well and truly began in 1943 when a Seattle Post-Intelligencer photographer named Arthur French noticed a line of children outside a nearby Frederick & Nelson department store.
The next year, he took some time off from the paper and set up a small shop inside the department store, snapping candid photos of children with Santa and selling them to the kids' parents.
Public DomainA family with Santa at the R.H. Macy and Company department store.
He was so successful, he did the same thing again in 1945 — and made $10,000 doing it, three times more than his annual salary.
In 1946, he quit the newspaper game for good and made his living snapping and selling photos of kids with Santa Claus, and later, the Easter Bunny.
Some of the oldest Santa photos feature different interpretations of Santa Claus, however. While we now associate Mr. Claus with a big belly, rosy cheeks, and a twinkle in his eye, prior to 1931, Santa ran the gamut from bald priest to pipe-smoking, portly old man.
What changed in 1931? Well, as it turns out, that was the first year that the Coca-Cola company featured Santa Claus in an advertisement. The ad was so popular and successful that it helped solidify the classic Santa appearance we still know today.
Coca-ColaIn 1931, Coca-Cola hired artist Haddon Sundblom to design advertisements featuring Santa taking inspiration from Clement Clark Moore's 1822 poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas."
Then, in 1947, the film A Miracle on 34th Street released, and mall Santas were cemented as a permanent piece of cultural lore. Meanwhile, children across America eagerly visited mall Santa, possibly with the secret hope that their local mall had been blessed by the one true Santa Claus.
Even now, with American mall culture well past its 1980s peak, mall Santa lives on.
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a bachelor's degree in screenwriting (widely considered to be a bad move) from Point Park University.