In search of Santa

Kris Kringles are everywhere this time of year, but where's the real Mr. Claus? With a skeptical 7-year-old's help, we cut through the fake snow and polyester beards so you know where to go

If you are 7-and-a-half years old, halfway through the second grade, and living on a steady diet of CD-ROM and Nickelodeon's "Weinerville," very little slips by you. Such is the case with Caitlin, who has already shattered some of the most sacred myths of childhood.

First, she is already hip to the Easter Bunny. "Let's face it," she announced last spring, "a rabbit can't lay eggs."

And this Tooth-Fairy thing? Clearly, Caitlin has her doubts. This Tinkerbell-like sprite flits into your bedroom in the middle of the night and exchanges a whole dollar bill for a ratty-old fallen-out tooth. It's a great deal, all right. But how does she get in the house? And how does she get under your pillow without waking you up?

These are the things that weigh heavily on Caitlin's mind as she stumbles from childhood toward preadolescence. And now, with less than a week until Christmas, she is testing again--this time questioning nothing less than God's truth: Is there really, she wonders, a Santa Claus?

She hasn't put it quite that bluntly. But it's clear that the dark forces of human nature--in this case, her worldly friends with older siblings--have been working against the myth. This time of year, Caitlin says, talk of Santa is all the buzz at recess. "One time Stephanie told me there is no such thing as Santa Claus--that it's really your parents," Caitlin says. "I told her, 'That's OK, you can believe what you want.' I don't think she's right."

Ah, these days the Truth comes steamrolling over kids at such a tender age. Caitlin, I see, is about to be flattened.

Sensing she could use some support for her waffling belief in the Big Guy, I decide to take her on a mission. Together we will brave what passes for winter weather in Dallas, the construction-clogged freeways, and the seasonal schlock to find the real Santa.

Our quest is to find a man so grand, so jolly, so rosy-cheeked and barrel-bellied that he is truly worthy of the title "Father Christmas." Caitlin's criteria for the real Mr. C. are really quite simple: "Red suit with trims of wool on his collar and cuffs and hat. And on his pants, too. He should have a big belt and a red hat. His boots should be black and shiny, not really long or short, but in the middle. Little square glasses. A deep voice and a good smell. And he should be over a thousand years old, because he's been around a long time."

So for three days this month, we took notebook and courage, piled into my aging four-wheel-drive station wagon, and scoured the Dallas and suburban mall scene for something close to a real Santa. Our journey took us past billboards of seductively posed women selling nude modeling and oil wrestling; a car fire on eastbound I-30; past seriously overstocked Christmas-tree lots and into the eerily lit shopping malls: land of too many athletic-shoe stores, giant-cookie vendors, bored teen-agers, fake snow, and Santas of every age and shape and with every quality of facial hair.

All told, we combed eight shopping malls, logging nearly 300 miles on our quest.

Did we find him? I'm not sure. In my 38 years, I've seen better, but this was largely Caitlin's call to make. She is satisfied that the best Santa temporarily resides in a place most Dallasites wouldn't expect. He is meek and kind and a good listener. He has a great sense of humor, and doesn't seem particularly rushed, even in this season of noise, long lines, and stress. He even comes in three colors.

The rest of the pack? Mostly too much rouge, stiff wigs, and pillow-padded midriffs. A real Jingle Hell.

Wired for sound
Prestonwood Town Center
5301 Beltline Road, Dallas

We find Prestonwood's Santa early on a Wednesday morning, just after he's opened shop. He sits in a giant red sleigh with enough space for a child on each side--a twist on the traditional high-backed chair from which every other Santa seems to hold court. The sleigh sits between two faux towers surrounded by green, plastic garlands, potted poinsettias, fake evergreens, and piles of glittery, polystyrene snow (this is a standard prop at Santa villages everywhere; by the time our mission is complete we will be positively ersatz-snow blind).

Mr. Claus takes three minutes to primp before motioning his first visitor, a tiny girl named Shelby, to his lap. His beard is a mound of white polyester, and his suit--in keeping with the upscale demographics of the Prestonwood crowd--is the color of deep merlot. This is most troubling to Caitlin, who pulls me to her level and whispers, "His suit is too dark! What happened to his red suit? Santa Claus is supposed to have a bright-red suit. It's always that way in the stories!" The guy is definitely padded, too.

This Santa is assisted by a hyperkinetic elf, a fiftyish woman with dark brown hair and a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words "I STILL BELIEVE IN SANTA." She is the keeper of the high-tech traps parents must run to get through this date with Santa. At Prestonwood, Santa-seekers are immediately bombarded with a huge poster hawking several visual remembrances of the magic moment, from a 3x4 Polaroid for $6.50 to a video of your child's two-minute Santa session for $19.95. There are frames and "personalized" children's Christmas books for sale, too.

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