A beloved local Santa Claus has been fired from his job at Cherry Lane Mall for pictures he took on his personal time while dressed in his costume, and the community has roared to his defence.
Gary Haupt looks forward to acting as the jolly old elf around Penticton each year, including at charity events for SOWINS and working with children on the autism spectrum at OSNS.
Last year, he took on his first ever mall Santa job.
"This would have been my second year. There was a lot of enthusiasm, and I really worked hard at doing that, I wanted it to be like that," Haupt said.
During that time, Haupt had some fun with the role, occasionally getting requests from adults at the mall to take silly photos with him, including some who "wanted it to appear as having been spanked by Santa," he explained.
At the time, the event manager, Haupt and the photographer agreed that should no longer happen on mall property and while Haupt was being paid for the job.
Following that, it was smooth sailing. Haupt says the mall re-upped his contract for the 2019 holiday season.
But over this past week, Haupt took some photos while dressed as Santa during his personal time, in his own home and off mall property.
He took one with a female friend in which he jokingly reaches for her breasts, and one with a woman while he pretends to drink from a flask. Both times, he says, the photos were the women's idea and all in fun, and they were posted to Facebook.
"So yesterday I got a note, 'Meeting, mall, 3:30,'" Haupt said, and that's where he got the bad news that he was fired.
"They said we are really sorry to do this, but somebody has emailed the pictures and a complaint to the mall."
Haupt was shocked and disappointed, and given no chance to appeal, he says. Castanet reached out to mall management Wednesday afternoon but was told no one was available to give comment.
"I understand that people want to make a complaint if they feel strongly about something, but I think people should also be able to stand up and say 'That's not our business,' in the case of mall management. Somebody should have had the courage to say 'What has that got to do with me?'" Haupt said.
His partner Sharon Nichols posted the photos in question and an explanation of his firing to the popular Penticton Facebook group, and within an hour, it had nearly 200 posts mostly in support of Haupt, with some even suggesting a boycott of Cherry Lane Mall.
"It feels wonderful. You have to be careful, you're going to make me cry," Haupt said, upon hearing the news of the outpouring of support.
He said he takes the job and the firing very personally, and he feels hurt. But if Cherry Lane were to offer him the job back, he would jump at it.
"Of course I would! It's a wonderful experience," he explained.
"It's not just putting on a red suit and wandering around, there's a lot of children out there asking for things they can't have because there's not enough money to go around. There's lots of hurt, and Santa Claus comes across that, it's a huge responsibility. And I love looking after that."