Beloved Westmoreland Mall Santa makes special visit; mall Santa arrives Friday

It’s only November, but for many in Westmoreland County, Santa Claus already came to town.

It’s only November, but for many in Westmoreland County, Santa Claus already came to town.

For three days last week, thousands of children and parents waited outside the Christmas Town store at Westmoreland Mall for their chance to meet the man many have deemed the real Kris Kringle.

“This Santa just makes you feel happy,” said April Rodkey, who took her 3-year-old son, Carson Shellhammer, to see him. “Warm and safe. It’s as if he’s the real Santa Claus.”

Played by New Jersey resident Michael Collins, this Santa quickly became a staple at the Hempfield mall, where he served as the official mall Santa for the past two years.

This year, however, Collins said the New Jersey-based talent agency Cherry Hill Programs placed him closer to his home, meaning he would not be returning to Westmoreland County. Knowing the connection between himself and area residents, Collins decided to leave the agency and plan a trip to the mall on his own dime.

“They’ve accepted me as what I am, some have accepted me for what I truly wish I could be, but they’re just a bunch of great people,” Collins said of Westmoreland County residents. “I enjoy my visits with them. I’m just sorry this year it had to be a short visit, but it had to be a visit nonetheless because there’s too many people that were counting on me.”

With the mall Santa placed by Cherry Hill beginning Friday and running through Christmas Eve, Collins planned his trip for early November.

“He had dates in mind. He just needed a place to see everybody, so we offered our store for him to visit with kids. … We were happy to be a part of it, but it was all him,” said Ashley Ferry, Christmas Town manager. “Just having him here, I don’t think there was a dry eye the entire three days that he was here because every interaction was just so magical.”

Cherry Hill Programs declined to comment. A spokeswoman with CBL Properties, the entity that owns Westmoreland and Monroeville malls, did not return an email seeking comment.

Last Monday, Collins donned his red suit, fur lined boots and glasses and sat in a red and white chair inside Christmas Town. With little advertising outside of social media, families whose children have never seen a different Santa, along with those who know the magic Collins brings, quickly lined up outside the store.

Over three days, Collins said he saw between 5,000 and 6,000 people. Most nights, Collins stayed two hours after the mall closed, making sure he met every child. Throughout the visit, Christmas Town officials collected more than $3,900 to help cover travel expenses.

“This particular Santa has been the Santa that my daughter has seen since she was born, along with a lot of other kids around Westmoreland County,” said Amber Bowers, 31, of Herminie. “This particular Santa always remembers a lot of the kids that go to see him. And if he doesn’t, he still makes that connection with them as if he did remember them.”

Bowers’s 4-year-old daughter, Tallia, said she asked Santa for snowflake and Paw Patrol toys along with kinetic sand.

Similar to Tallia, Rodkey’s son, Carson, has seen Collins since 2019.

“It meant everything,” said Rodkey, of Blairsville. “Not only does he look the part and isn’t one of those scary mall Santas of your nightmares, he also just radiates the spirit of Christmas. The way he talks and his general vibe. I wanted him to be a constant in my son’s life, the Santa we saw every year.”

Teri Sestilli, 68, of Greensburg said her grandchildren also went to see Collins. They still plan to go see the mall Santa, who the children call Santa’s helper.

Reservations are encouraged to see the mall Santa placed by Cherry Hill to reduce the number of people waiting in line. They can be made online at westmorelandmall.com.

Stacey Keating, CBL Properties spokeswoman, noted that visitors will have the option to sit on Santa’s lap or on Santa’s bench. Socially distanced options also are available.

Masks are not required for guests, but employees must be vaccinated and wear a mask.

Collins, who is spending the remainder of the holiday season playing Santa at Storybook Land in New Jersey, looks fondly at his visit to the area.

“Until you’ve walked a mile in my shoes, you don’t realize how important one person on one day is to those children,” Collins said. “There’s special needs children, there’s autistic children, there’s handicapped children — that moment with Santa carries them all year long. I had to make sure that it happened.”

While nothing is set, he said he would likely be back at Westmoreland Mall next year to spread the magic to area children.

“Every time I talk to anybody, I close it with two simple words: Always believe,” he said. “Because if you can understand it in your heart and you can in your mind, your world’s a better place.”

Megan Tomasic is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 724-850-1203, [email protected] or via Twitter .


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