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Spinney brings Christmas spirit to mall

Spinney, top, in his Santa gear at Parkdale Mall. Spinney keeps a collection of all the gifts children have given him over the years, above.
Spinney, top, in his Santa gear at Parkdale Mall. Spinney keeps a collection of all the gifts children have given him over the years, above. UP photos by Eleanor Skelton.


There is a difference between playing Santa Claus at a party and being him at the mall, Richard Spinney said. 

“At the mall, it’s all about the kids,” he said. “And then, try not to forget what Christmas is about in the first place, rather than just presents. Although some children are very aware of it, some children haven’t got a clue.” 

Spinney is in his 18th year as Santa at Parkdale Mall. He started playing Father Christmas at Dickens on the Strand in Galveston back in the late 1980s, but became a mall Santa in 2002 after reading a newspaper ad a year before retiring from his warehouse job. 

When children come to visit him, Spinney said he usually starts the conversation by asking them what they would like for Christmas. 

“And depending on what they say is what I say. ‘Well, I want a robot.’ ‘OK, well that’s good. Are you staying on the good list?’ ‘Yeah’ — which may or may not be true,” Spinney said, laughing. “And I say, ‘Well, make sure that you stay on the good list by keeping your room clean, picking up your toys, helping mom and doing good in school,’ — those things.

“Every Santa has their own spiel that they say. And you don’t say exactly the same thing to every single kid, that would be very boring.”

Spinney said he builds conversations based on what children tell him. 

“Little girls come up dressed in pink from head to toe and I say, ‘Oh, let me guess, is your favorite color pink?’ And they say, ‘Yeah, how’d you know?’” he said. “But every once in a while, I’ll say, ‘Is your favorite color pink?’ ‘No, it’s purple.’ ‘Well, who likes pink?’ ‘Mommy likes pink.’”

Parkdale Mall’s booth allows children to visit with Santa and tell him what they want for Christmas. They get a candy cane even if their parents cannot afford to purchase the portrait set. Spinney said all kinds of children come to see him. 

“Then there’s the sad side of it,” he said. “You find kids that have nothing. Every once in a while, I get a very sad story. When I ask them what they want for Christmas, they say, ‘I want my dad to visit.’ It turns out he’s in jail and there’s nothing you can do about it, and I can’t help it. So, we usually give a hug and wish him well and tell him that he’ll be in my prayers.”

Other children say things like “I want my mom to be happy,” Spinney said. And it turns out daddy has left. 

“No matter what you say, it’s not gonna help and it probably will be wrong,” he said. “A hug cures a lot, it really does. 

“I haven’t heard mommy in jail yet, but several times over the years, ‘Dad’s in jail and I want him out for Christmas.’ Well, I can’t do that, but I can give you a hug and pray that things will be better later.”

Spinney keeps a box filled with trinkets children have given him over the years.

“There’s everything from keys to rocks to games,” he said, opening the box and taking out the items. “Sleigh bells, little Santas — it’s just full of stuff. I never refuse a gift from a child, no matter what it is. Today I got a rock. It’s the first one this year. To that child, it’s something, it’s meaningful to them.”

However, if the child offers money, Spinney said he encourages them to give it to the Salvation Army on their way out — “Try to teach them to give to things other than themselves.” 

Spinney’s work season usually starts the second Saturday of November and lasts six to seven weeks. 

“We go until 6 p.m. Christmas Eve, then they close the mall down and Santa goes and does his thing,” he said. 

Some children visit him as many as 20 times. 

“There’s very few that visit that many, but they come often and we encourage them, they can come as many times (as they want),” he said. “They come down and they tell me I changed my mind or I’d like to add this.”

Santa never guarantees anything, Spinney said. 

“I promise nothing — I say, Santa will do the best he can,” he said. 

One time, a mother came back to him and asked why he promised her 8-year-old son a four-wheeler.

“I said, ‘Well, let’s go over that conversation. And you correct me when I’m wrong. I told him that we might do a four-wheeler with mom and dad’s permission,’” he said, eyes twinkling. “But things like motorcycles, four-wheelers and pets, we always say, ‘With Mom and Dad’s permission.’

“And lately, in the last two or three years, I have said no to telephones. The moms and dads have to get you the telephone, because their idea of a telephone is a $500 phone. ‘I want a phone.’ I do, too, I still have a flip phone.”

Spinney has posted daily stories of his Santa life on Facebook for almost a decade. His favorite story happened about 10 years ago. 

“This little girl came in, she was about 12,” he said. “She sat down beside me and she says, ‘I don’t really want anything this year, I just want it to snow.’ And I said, ‘You know, I’m really sorry, but that’s God’s work. Santa can’t make it snow. I can bring you a toy. I can do a lot of things, but I can’t make it snow, but you and I can pray for snow. So we had a little prayer and she said ‘Thank you’ and we hugged and off she went. 

“I told my wife the story. She told our friends. It was all over the country by the time Christmas came. That was the only year in a 100 years that it snowed on Christmas Eve.”

Spinney asks children who are old enough and do not believe in Santa anymore to help with their younger siblings. 

“Two years ago, I had a cute little boy, and he brought his little sister down and he was acting like a big brother, trying to get her to enjoy Christmas. I thanked him for being Santa’s helper,” Spinney said. “I said, ‘You can’t wait to be Santa, can you?’ He said, ‘No, I can’t.’ When they get that age, it’s different.”

“Someday, you’ll be Santa, too,” he tells older siblings.

“Use this to learn so you can be a good one when you grow up. Because you gotta learn that giving is from here,” Spinney said, pointing to his heart. 

As he approaches two decades as old St. Nick, Spinney has no plans to retire.

“I don’t know how many more years I can do it, but as long as I can, I will,” he said. “Because it’s more fun than anything.”

Category: Features