A dispute between a veteran Santa and one of the Washington area's biggest malls appeared to be headed for a happy ending after his abrupt firing prompted a public outcry.

Tysons Corner Center and Michael Graham, the man who has played Santa Claus at the mall for 18 years, said Thursday that they reached an "agreement in principle" for the 51-year-old carpenter from Sevierville, Tenn., to return to the job this holiday season.

In a joint statement, the parties said they hoped to have a final agreement to announce in the coming days, and Graham canceled a planned news conference.

The mall recently informed Graham that he wouldn't be coming back, but it was too late for him to find another gig. Graham hired a lawyer to demand his job back and a down payment that was due Oct. 1.

The mall said it canceled its contract with Graham because it decided to work with a new photography company that wanted a different Santa.

Graham's contract paid him about $175 an hour, about 10 times the going rate. However, Steve Hardin, senior vice president of World Wide Photography, said the issue was not money.

News of the dispute sparked hundreds of calls, an online petition and threats to boycott the mall.

"I'm both honored and humbled by all the calls and e-mails I've received over the last 24 hours. It's a wonderful feeling to know that in some small way, I've touched the lives of so many people, especially the children," Graham said in the statement.

Mall spokeswoman Allison Fischer said Tysons Corner Center is focused on bringing the holiday spirit to families.

"We are both committed to providing our very special community a most memorable holiday season," she said.