mall santa

Seven-month-old LinAnn Riggleman sits on Andy Ballard’s lap while photographer Charlie Reeves takes her picture at the Village Mall Center Court.

It’s a familiar scene. Eager parents deposit their less-than-eager children on the lap of a rather rotund stranger in a bright red suit.

His mammoth white beard and mustache cover his mouth. Although his “Ho, ho, ho!” sounds familiar, it’s in a voice the little ones have never heard before.

No wonder some tiny tots wind up crying when they see Santa Claus.

Recently, 2-year-old Tre Robbins’ mother and grandmother encouraged him to approach Santa, but Tre’s tears started when it was time to climb up on that red velvet lap.

“It’s a lot of pressure that the parents put on them, especially the younger ones,” said Andy Ballard, an experienced Santa. “Kids need to get used to what they’re seeing. Parents should let them look at Santa for a while. They shouldn’t be set on getting a photo the very first time.”

Ballard should know. This marks his 11th year as a Village Mall Santa.

Santa Claus greets children in the center court of the Village Mall from noon to 8 p.m. weekdays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturdays and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays.

Although he doesn’t travel from quite as far as the North Pole, he does journey from Ohio so he can spend the holiday season in the mall’s center court.

Ballard grew up in Danville and has family here, but he lives in Ohio where he studies middle school education. He’s always enjoyed working with children.

“I’ve been a parks and recreation department coordinator. I’ve worked in after-school programs, I worked with kids who were in boot camp,” he said, “but this job is pure joy.”

Charlie Reeves, the professional photographer who runs the mall’s Santa area, agreed.

He travels every day to Danville during the holiday season from his home in Martinsville. That’s an hour-and-a-half drive each way, but he enjoys the time he spends here.

It’s Reeves’ seventh year as Santa’s handler. He supervises the mall’s Easter Bunny in the spring, too.

Both men recognize from years past some of the children who stop to see Santa.

“We have regulars who we know,” Reeves said.

The tearful Tre was one of those return visitors.

“The first time we came, he was just a baby,” Robbins’ mom Heather said. “Last year, he was amazed by all the colors. This is a little different.”

Santa, who’s seated on a loveseat this year instead of a sleigh, showed his skill as he spoke softly to the little boy. It wasn’t long before Tre made the leap from floor to lap, but then the tears started once again.

Reeves came to the rescue.

He pulled a stuffed rabbit out of his box of props, waved it in the air, and the toddler laughed. In fact, he laughed so hard Reeves had to take another picture where Tre was just smiling.

His mother and grandmother were delighted.

The toddler seemed happy to climb off Santa’s lamp and up on the fence that surrounds the Santa’s display of trees, giant presents and the train children can ride.

“Some places charge to see Santa, but I don’t do that,” said Reeves, the photographer who has two others in the role of Santa in addition to Ballard to cover all shifts. “The majority of those who stop get photos, but it’s not a requirement.”

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