McLEAN, Va. -- His rosy cheeks, real beard and magic touch have drawn families to the same spot year after year when the holiday season begins, but in a Grinch moment, Tysons Corner Center mall gave 51-year-old Michael Graham the boot as Santa just a month before he was to begin considering holiday requests.
After demands from his faithful, he's back, to the delight of customers who have come year after year to see the popular elf.
When this Santa Claus greeted customers Friday, Barbara Morse, of Connecticut, said she had no doubt she had found the real Saint Nick.
"He has to be," the 52-year-old woman said. "He has a twinkle in his eye, and he's a good, genuine, nice man."
Morse brought 14 family members to have their picture taken with Santa -- a Christmas tradition they've followed for 10 years at the same northern Virginia shopping mall. They say Santa remembers them every year.
It's hard to believe Santa is a construction worker from Seiverville, Tenn.
All of the outward Santa traits are there -- the deep Christmas red suit trimmed with white rabbit fur and small, wire-rimmed specs. But it's Graham's natural demeanor that have parents and their children convinced that he's the real deal.
Graham's return was in doubt when mall managers hired a new photography company as part of an effort to revamp its holiday look. They wanted to have a different man occupy the big chair.
"We wanted to create an experience that was enhanced, which included a new photo provider," said mall spokeswoman Allison Fischer. "They contracted other real-bearded Santas, so we made a decision to go in a different direction."
But the new strategy didn't work.
Local residents made sure he stayed put, sending e-mails and signing petitions to the mall to get their Santa back.
"I'm grateful, overwhelmed with all the accolades," Graham said. "It's wonderful. The human race is still a wonderful thing to be a part of."
Graham has been accepting gifts of hand-drawn pictures and sweets from some children before hoisting them onto his lap. He said he wouldn't have taken his yearly leave from construction if he couldn't return to the mall.
Once again, he has hung up his tool belt, hard hat and steel-toed boots to lend his ears to the wishes of children.
Graham said consistency and his strong interest in the children has been the key to his popularity. And the twinkle in his eye hasn't hurt.
"I've built a relationship with people in this area," he said. "There's the triumph of that child that's terrified. Next thing you know they're sitting on your lap. Those are the types of things you remember."