Three hours in and the line of humanity buzzing about the Christmas tree outside Claire’s jewelry store has been roped off.
Last call for Santa. He’ll be back at 4 p.m.
With the final toddler whisked from his lap, the Shops at Ardmore Santa, who goes by Papa Santa, shuts off the box fan by his festive throne and creaks toward the break room.
Papa Santa, 64, finds his stride as he passes the Jin Yuan all-you-can-eat Chinese Buffet and zips toward a vacant storefront to shed his bright red suit.
Before he reaches the door, a shriek.
“Santa!” said a group of young  teens passing by.
He responds with some hugs and a hearty, “Merry Christmas.”
As they walk past, he shakes his head, smiling.
“Santa is never off the clock,” he said.
Minutes later, the man with an iconic white beard emerges in scarlet and cream, rocking an Oklahoma University hat and hoodie to blend in as he plops down at a table hidden from view in Mr. J’s Sandwich Bar.
He takes his tea sweet and his potatoes fried — time to fuel up for another three-hour stretch.
It’s his first full season being a professional mall Santa, and on the Saturday before Christmas Eve, he’s half way through his 30th straight day on the job.
He cherishes the gig despite what sitting for hours does to his back.
The pain is temporary, he said, but the smiles and looks of wonderment as children come face to face with Santa last a lifetime.
“It makes my day,” Papa Santa said. “They make it all worth it. The kids look at you with such surprise and they’re so happy to see you They know they’re going to get gifts or at least a candy cane from me.”
He said he doesn’t do it for the money, or the fame.
“I do it for the kids,” he said.
Papa Santa, an Ardmore resident, was a Michelin man before he retired. He also worked a stint at Circuit City before they closed down.
After retiring, his beard began losing its color and around that same time, he answered an employment advertisement.
The Shops at Ardmore needed a new mall Santa. Fate.
“I’ve had a beard for years and years, and when it started turning gray, I thought, ‘hey, I’ll be Santa Claus,” he said.
Shops at Ardmore Mall Manager Cathy Bump, who’s worked at the mall for 11 years, said the previous Mall Santa worked there long before she arrived. Replacing the former Santa was a tough task, Bump said, but with Papa Santa, she said she found a gem.
“This guy has been wonderful, he’s so outgoing and great with the kids,” Bump said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better Santa.”
Working the mall came about as easy as riding a bike for Papa Santa. With his beard and hearty belly, he said kids at Wal-Mart and all around town would swarm him thinking he was Ole Saint Nick.
“They call me Santa anywhere, even during the summer time,” he said. “Plus, I got 13 grandkids. That gets you ready.”
And for his cheerful persona, he said it’s not an act.
“That’s just the way I am,” he said.
Kids big and small have come to meet Santa.
One of his 13 grandchildren, a 6’3” 250 pound 16 year old, came and sat on Papa Santa’s lap this season. On Saturday, he met his record youngest visitor, a two-day old baby who promptly passed out against his soft fuzzy suit.
He said with the little ones, it can be dangerous. But he’s more than used to a little snot and slobber
“I’ve had one of them say ‘I got to go the bathroom, I got to go’ and her dad’s saying ‘it’s okay, it’s okay,’ and I had these big old guys thinking ‘oh please don’t go to go the bathroom on me, he said. “I’ve had little bitty babies start smelling you know, but you don’t say nothing, you just smile and go on.”
It’s part of the job, he said, and it’s a job he said he wants to keep doing for a long time.
Bump said she’s already asked Papa Santa to come back next year.
Though tired from working what will be 31 straight days on Christmas Eve, he said he can’t wait to do it all over again next year.
“They already asked me do it from now on — for as long as I live,” he said. “That’s the plan.”