It's Christmas at the mall and every local shopping center.
Some young children shed tears while reaching for mothers at the first sight of the white-bearded man in the big red suit.
Others bounce away joyfully in great anticipation of a visit from St. Nick, with visions of more than sugar plums dancing in their heads.
But an increasing number of adults are embracing Santa Claus and the hope that he represents.
"One of the surprising things we continue to see year after year are all of the adults that go and see Santa," said Lisa McCracken, marketing director at Charleston Town Center. "There are ones that wish for better relationships with their spouse, wish for a job or a better job. They wish for more patience. … Santa oftentimes has a heavy emotional load that we never really thought about.
"You see adults talking to Santa and you don't think much of it, thinking there is a kid or a child that was nearby that you don't see. But Santa can be a counselor to adults for the holidays."
Santa hears many sincere, desperate requests from children and adults alike.
"Folks that have issues with gambling have spoken with him," McCracken said. "Some that have a drinking problem have spoken with him. Many have cried, sitting beside of him, looking for a respite from their load.
"Santa hears it all. It's not always a new doll or a new truck."
Cookies and milk
While on lunch break during a recent mid-week appearance at Charleston Town Center, Santa spoke about those visits.
"Quite frequently I have adults visit me," he acknowledged. "I'll have them come in to see Santa for a specific reason. There have been times I've been put on the spot, so to speak. Had I not had a faith-based background, I wouldn't have been able to respond.
"There's people that are, especially at Christmas time, that are in real situations — physically, mentally and spiritually," said Santa.
An example was a woman who had just experienced a loss.
"A lady, probably in her mid-40s, came one year," said Santa. "I noticed her. she was upset. She was crying while she was standing in line with the children.
"When she got to Santa, I invited her to sit wherever she pleased, but she sat right down on my knee and buried her face in my shoulder and sobbed."
She wept without words.
"I asked her, ‘What can I do to help?' Santa recalled. "She looked at me and said, ‘I lost my mother last Christmas and now I don't know what to do.' Then she looked at me and said. ‘I knew if anybody could do something, it would be Santa Claus.'"
Santa responded, as few could.
"In a situation like that, you have to reach for your faith," he said. "I talked to her personally, and told her, ‘Ma'am, I'm just a man. Other than comfort you with words, I can only tell you of someone that can help you, and he is a lot higher power than me.'
"Once I explained that to her, she left smiling."
"That's the whole thing with Santa — putting a smile on their faces," he said. "Whether it's a child or an adult, if they go away happy, then I've done my job. I'm satisfied."
"To Santa's credit, he has a good listening ear, for both children and adults alike," McCracken said. "He is good to everyone that he speaks with. He takes time with everyone. It is special. People come to him with expectations, so it can be challenging. We want to meet and exceed those expectations."
For many, Santa represents hope during the holidays. And he reminds us of simpler times.
"Santa may be one of the most famous legends of all," McCracken said. "We have an immediate love of Santa, because as children, we listen for him. We listened for the sleigh bells right before we fell asleep on Christmas Eve. We think of him as one of the most magical, special people and the most good-hearted. So, when you see him, it is just so special; a great experience."
"I've been doing this quite a long time," Santa said. "It's all about the children. Pleasing the children at Christmas time makes me feel wonderful.
"It's all about being happy at Christmas. There's so much sadness in this world anyway. Santa is a part of overcoming that sadness. Even if he is just a part, for just a little while. Santa can help instill hope in a child."
Santa's heavy load
Much more than a bag filled with toys, Santa also carries the dreams and burdens of the hopeful and the hurting.
"I've had some tear-jerkers, stories that will break your heart," said Santa. "Several years ago, there was a group that brought orphans to see Santa.
"There were ones that sat on my lap and asked for a doll baby, a truck and an airplane. But there was this one boy that I spotted in line. He was standing there, looking down at the floor, and then looking at the wall. He wasn't really interacting with the other children that were having fun.
"He got up to me and sat on my knee. I said, ‘What would you like Santa to bring you for Christmas?' And he said, ‘I just want a family. Can you bring me a family?'
Santa choked up.
"Of all the things that he could have asked for ... ." Santa sniffed. "It's times like that, that you can hardly talk. I just had to look away for a moment."
The psychology of it
Dr. David A. Clayman has more than 30 years of experience in the field of psychology.
But he's stumped when it comes to adults reaching out to Santa, he readily admits.
"This is fascinating," said Clayman, a Charleston psychologist and director at Clayman & Associates. "I've never heard of this. I'm amazed. Maybe people want to believe … .
"Usually I'd have something more to say, but I've got nothing."
Clayman says it may point to the man, Santa, himself.
"I think it's unique to him — this may be more a testament to the Santa (at Charleston Town Center) than to a trend of adults asking for his help," he proposed. "He must exude some degree of caring and trust, as most mall Santas are not seen as much more than a stranger doing a job. My guess is that this is an anomaly — a nice oddity at that, but there is nothing to suggest that this is frequent with him or in other venues."
Clayman said that he sought information from among many peers and he researched the topic, but came up empty.
"There is no other reference to such openness (toward Santa) on the part of adults anywhere in the popular literature," he shared. "Actually when adults sit on Santa's lap it seems they do so for fun, asking for things like cars. Children do get more serious asking for parents to return from military service or to have a marriage saved, to have a parent find a job or have other more emotionally driven wishes fulfilled."
St. Nick on staff
Santa has served at Charleston Town Center for more than 15 consecutive years.
"It's an honor to have Santa here," McCracken said. "We think that the Christmas experience at Charleston Town Center can't be touched by any other shopping center. We are very proud of everything we present, but especially Santa. He is the star of the show. And he is such a nice guy.
"He is the real deal," she added. "Our emphasis has always been on the experience of meeting Santa, not about ‘Do you want to buy a picture?' That's the least of our concerns. It's about the quality and magic of the Santa experience and to feel good about the experience."
The downtown Charleston shopping complex is celebrating its 30th Christmas season. It hosts "The Frosty Forest" — the site of Santa's cabin inside the mall.
"We've tried to create a wonderful ambience and a Santa set," McCracken said. "The Frosty Forest has been embraced by the community. We're a real traditional community, with traditional values. It's been very popular."
Visitors will even experience snow in The Frosty Forest, regardless of temperatures outside.
"We've been snowing inside for about a decade inside the Charleston Town Center," McCracken said with a smile. "Every day, Monday through Friday, there's two scheduled snowfalls. On Saturday, there are four snowfalls and one on Sunday. It's a lot of fun, when Santa makes it snow while singing with the children and the parents watching."
Santa's schedule, and the snowfall schedule, can be found at charlestontowncenter.com.