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

The elf operates the Polaroid camera, the VCR, and, to cap the full electronic experience, a headset in which she communicates the children's names to Santa when the kids are out of earshot.

On our visit, Santa's headset keeps shorting out. "Her name is Caitlin," the elf whispers. Santa, sitting in his sleigh about 15 feet away, shakes his head and leans forward. "Caitlin, her name is Caitlin," the elf says again, her voice rising to a low shout. Again, Santa shakes his head. The elf looks at me, removes her headset, and shakes it. "We are getting some major interference here today," she tells me. "Anything electronic in the mall just really messes us up."

It's clear the elf wants this to work, but Caitlin, on this outing with her 4-year-old brother, Sam, has the problem in check. They climb up on Santa's sleigh. "I'm Caitlin, and this is Sam," she says dryly. They move through their requests. Caitlin wants a doll; Sam wants a stuffed dragon and a fast car. Santa Claus reminds them to brush their teeth and clean their rooms, then hands each of them a pink plastic bag with four sample-sized boxes of sugar-packed General Mills cereals. At last, merchandising has come to the North Pole.

We exit with a $6.95 photo and the head elf's admonition to "be sure and leave Rudolph a carrot!" Sam (who lacks Caitlin's second-grade sophistication) says, "I liked Santa because he's made out of a man." To which Caitlin replies, "Yeah, he's a man, but he isn't the real Santa Claus."

A final note to parents: Beware the nearby kiosk with the man selling silly handmade jester hats. They're fun to look at, but they induce a lot of whining.

Sunburned Santa
Collin Creek Mall
811 N. Central Expressway, Plano

Heading up the Dallas North Tollway, we figure our chances of finding the real Santa in Plano are as good as they are anywhere--after all, it's almost at the North Pole. We arrive at Collin Creek at 10:50 a.m. on a Wednesday. This mall is the base for a battalion of stay-at-home moms, who are pushing high-tech strollers and wearing Christmas cardigans crocheted with stockings, bells, and reindeer. The occasional non-conforming mom here wears a denim, rhinestone-studded work shirt.

Santa's digs here are rather minimalist, a variation on the workshop and village theme. The palladium entrance (fitting architecture, we think, for Plano) is "lit" by plastic gaslights, and colored bits of foil cover little windows near Santa's throne. The line is long early in the day, snaking around a little, white fence constructed for crowd control.

Again, we see a poster of photo price-lists, ranging from $6.99 to $21.99 for a portrait package. "Why do you have to pay to see Santa?" Caitlin asks me. "You don't have to pay just to talk to him," I reply. The woman in front of us, trying to keep a tired toddler from pulling the fence over on top of himself, turns around and grumbles: "Not yet, anyway. I'm waiting for that."

The line doesn't seem to be moving. Caitlin is restless. And this Santa doesn't appear worth the wait.

"His beard is just fuzzy white stuff, kind of fluffy at the bottom, and he has some weird sideburns that look like shoe polish," Caitlin says. His glasses are just OK: wire frames, but round rather than rectangular. And his cheeks? Rosy would be an understatement. This Santa appears to have gone on a rampage at the Foley's Clinique counter, with two saucer-sized splats of tomato-red rouge on either side of his face.

"What is he, sunburned?" Caitlin asks. "Santa Claus never gets sunburned."
Humbug. We turn and walk away. The wait is too long, babies are screaming, and the guy is only giving out paper reindeer antlers, with...what's this? The Fort Worth Zoo logo on the headband. Sheesh! This regionalism stuff is going too far.

Another whine alert: The Disney Store is a mere 30 feet away, well within eyesight of kiddies exhausted from standing in line.

A painfully honest Santa
The Parks at Arlington
3811 South Cooper Street, Arlington

What we like at The Parks are the amenities--two park benches strategically placed near the long line and the merciful lack of any toy stores within our range of vision. The line to Santa Claus winds past a country sleigh-ride scene, with a huge snowy-globe prop as its centerpiece. Caitlin is enthralled. Her mouth gapes open as she watches bits of plastic snow swirl around inside the globe.

We start our wait at 3:10 in the afternoon and get to Santa's lap 22 minutes later. Before that, we watch parent after parent plop a child onto Santa's lap, only to remove the terrified little one, in full hysteria, seconds later. For some reason, the geeky "elf" who is shooting photos on this shift is convinced he can make any child smile--even those still harboring an abject terror of Santa. He squeaks a plastic snowman at a screaming tot, buzzes his lips, jumps up and down. The child's mother, overcome by a spurt of common sense, finally plucks the little guy up and starts to walk away. "Are you sure?" the elf insists. "I think I can get a little smile out of him." Hmm. Sadism and yuletide cheer really do not mix.

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