By Nancy R. Elliott
For The Herald Bulletin
---- — ANDERSON — He was just a boy, about five or six years old. His hair was completely gone, and his little body was showing the effects of heavy medications. Just into remission from leukemia, he was there with a bright smile on his face to visit Santa Claus. What was his Christmas wish?
“He was wanting for everybody to be as happy as he was right then,” said David Cunningham.
Cunningham knows because this time of year he’s privy to all those Christmas wishes. Day in and day out, the Anderson man dons his fur-topped boots, buckles his belt over his red suit, and perches his glasses on his nose to play Santa at Mounds Mall in Anderson.
About 4,500 kids came to see Santa at Mounds Mall last year, and since Black Friday this year, there’s been a steady stream. Cunningham, 61, stepped in to the job last year, when the mall’s former Kris Kringle dropped out due to health issues. It was a brand new role for Cunningham, who has worked in mall security for about five years after retiring from Delco-Remy.
“I really didn’t know anything about being Santa,” said Cunningham. He definitely took to the role, though. He now sports a long, white beard achieved through the magic of time and peroxide.
Cunningham happily goes to his Santa gig aided by Susan Adams, who is in her first year as Mrs. Claus. In her red dress and white wig, she helps manage the kids.
“It’s a lot of fun, it really is,” said Adams. “The kids - they’re a hoot.”
Most of those who come to see Santa are anywhere from infant to about nine years old. They bring their Christmas wishes, and many get their picture taken with him - Sandy Hampton of Anderson’s Hampton Photography is the on-site pro who snaps and prints the pictures.
Adams said that most of the kids are very excited to see Santa. "They just run right to him." Many of them are in such a tizzy, they are dumbfounded.
“Once they‘re there, they‘re so nervous they can‘t talk ... I’ve seen them actually forget their names,” said Cunningham. Those that can talk have lots of questions about the reindeer and the elves. Cunningham patiently copes as his beard is pulled, while others have a need to look under his hat.
There are, however, children who are frightened, even as their parents encourage them onto Santa’s lap for that perfect holiday picture.
“Some fight and kick and struggle to get away. There’s a lot of screaming kids,” said Cunningham. “I thought about getting shin guards. I do get kickers.”
While electronic devices like iPads, iPods, laptops and cell phones seem to be at the top of most of the children’s wish lists, Legos and Monster High dolls are in the mix, too, this year.
Then, there are those who come with an entirely different type of request, like the four -year-old girl who asked for a shotgun. Turned out, all of her older brothers had one, so she wanted one, too.
Others have less material objectives. One little boy climbed onto Santa’s lap to ask for his mommy and daddy to get back together. Another asked Santa to bring his late grandpa back.
A six-year-old girl asked Santa to bring her mommy and daddy home.
“I asked where they were. She told me they were in prison,” said Cunningham. To such requests, Cunningham responds with heartfelt sympathy. “I explain I deal in toys, but we’ll go to God and pray for the other.”
Cunningham recalled two young boys, one in a wheelchair, who came to see Santa last year as foster kids.
“They had been in a fire,” said Cunningham. “They were both horribly, horribly burned.” This year, the pair have been adopted by their foster mother. They didn’t ask for much, just a few little toys.
It’s all a reminder of that wonderful blurry line between giving and getting. Cunningham and Adams aim to keep the magic alive.
“I hope I’m a real enough Santa to keep ‘em believing a while,” said Cunningham. “It gives them something bright to believe in.”
If you go: What: Santa and Mrs. Claus Where: Mounds Mall, 2109 S. Scatterfield Road Time: Monday through Friday, 5 to 8 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 8 p.m. and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Christmas Eve until 6 p.m.