Searching for Santa: Jolly St. Nick revels in busy season at the mall

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By Matt Gunn

The jolly bearded man in the bright red suit was a bit elusive on Friday at Southwest Plaza.

His enclave near JC Penney seemed almost neglected. A handful of parents with strollers surrounded Santa’s set, but few children were venturing to his lap.

But there was a reason for this lull in the general festivities: St. Nick was about to take a lunch break.

The czar of all things yule escaped while a reporter and photographer examined the logistics of taking a photo. Into the festive crowd went Santa, staying in sight thanks to his ruby suit and 6-foot-4 frame. But as the media followed him to the center of the mall, Santa disappeared.

For a second, it appeared that Santa was wielding his holiday magic.

But actually, he had just gone up an escalator.

With his pursuit back on track, Santa arrived at the food court. Many children hesitated, in awe of seeing the world’s greatest gift-giver. They were even more shocked to discover Santa’s diet goes beyond milk and cookies.

“Santa eats pizza!” children exclaimed, as St. Nick got into line at Cozzoli’s Pizza.

And even though a hearty meal was on his mind, Santa happily greeted all who came to say hello as he ordered lunch.

“Kids ask me what my favorite food is,” Santa said. “I tell them ice cream cones.”

For Ed Grosh — or Santa, as he prefers — it’s all part of the holiday season.

“And believe me, I love it,” Santa says.

From now through Christmas Eve, Santa is ready for business at the mall. Having brought joy to kids off and on for 35 years, Grosh is marking his sixth year at Southwest Plaza.

And there’s no place he’d rather be.

“It’s very gratifying to make children happy,” said Grosh, 76. “I love children — I have four of my own.”

His own kids all grown, Grosh continues bringing happiness through his seasonal work as the jolly elf.

During the holiday season, Southwest Plaza’s Santa estimates, he sees between 8,000 and 10,000 children. And, of course, most of them are good.

“I saw over 10,000 kids last year, and only three of them peed on my lap,” Santa said with a ho, ho, ho.

But all joking aside, Grosh knows the role of Santa Claus consists of more than simply listening to wishes and posing for pictures.

“You’ve got to make every child feel like they’re the only kid in the world,” Grosh said.

And that was apparent even as Santa ate his lunch.

Three-year-old Makenzie Pope from Morrison simply wanted to give Santa a hug before she left for more shopping with her parents.

Many others waved or smiled as they walked past Santa, their gestures never unanswered.

“I’ve never had a nasty kid,” Grosh said. “Ever.”

While some mall Santas must be accompanied everywhere they go, Grosh said that isn’t the case at Southwest Plaza. One of the reasons he enjoys his position in South Jeffco is that he is given some freedom to choose where he eats or walks around the mall on breaks.

There are also times when he has to relax in the break room’s easy chair or make quick phone calls to Mrs. Claus. And Santa even revealed a cell phone, showing that technology hasn’t passed him by.

“Mrs. Claus is up in Cripple Creek, and that’s a nice place to live,” Grosh said. “Of course, the kids all know I live in the North Pole. Except in the summer; that’s where I vacation, is Cripple Creek.”

And luckily for the Clauses, Cripple Creek is not too bad a commute to Santa’s set at Southwest Plaza, where kids are able to reveal their dreams and pose for a snapshot seven days a week through Christmas Eve.

Ever since he can remember, Grosh said, Barbie Dolls have been the most-requested gift.

“I don’t remember when they came out, but they were No. 1,” Grosh said. “And they’re still No. 1.”

The gifts children ask for aren’t always so easy to provide.

“And then there’s sad times, too,” Grosh said. “Kids come in, they want their daddy to come home — he’s off in the war. It doesn’t happen often, maybe three or four times a year.”

When that does happen, Santa does his best to listen and spend a happy moment with the child, even though he can’t promise to deliver her precise wish.

Santa made sure not to rush as he walked back to his set. He continued stopping when children smiled and waved, and even said hello to a few smiling shoppers. He even disclosed one of Santa’s little secrets.

“This is cinnamon,” Grosh whispered, pointing to his rosy cheeks.

“He’s having a blast,” said Seve Gallup, Santa set manager. “He’s been at this mall a long time. He’s a good Santa.”

Just as Santa made his way back to his set underneath the big Christmas tree, 7-year-old Amy Romero tugged his pant leg and said, “Hello.”

Though she couldn’t hide her excitement to see Santa behind her wide smile, Romero wasn’t quite ready to tell him her wish list.

“I’m not sure,” she said.

Contact Matt Gunn at matt@evergreenco.com.