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

When Caitlin finally gets to the front of the line, she sizes up Santa this way: "It's a good red suit. Not too dark, not too light. And that's a real beard. There aren't any straps." Indeed, his beard is solid and white and even looks scratchy. The real thing.

"He doesn't look quite a thousand years old," Caitlin whispers. "But Santa can hide his age."

His glasses are of the granny variety, rectangular and propped midway down his nose. Nice effect. He's wearing white gloves, but no boots--just a pallid pair of black loafers, covered with black rubber knee-length gaiters.

"That's OK. Maybe the elves are working on his boots so they'll be ready for Christmas Eve," Caitlin reasons.

Does this kid want to believe or what?
Finally, the moment has arrived. Caitlin climbs aboard. Their conversation goes something like this:

Santa: "What do you want for Christmas?"
Caitlin: "A doll, I guess."
Santa: "Have you been good? Do you brush your teeth and take your bath when mom and dad tell you?"

Caitlin nods. (As I will learn throughout this quest, Kris Kringle is something of an obsessive-compulsive--every Santa we visit asks a series of personal-hygiene questions, focusing on teeth, bathing, and hair combing.)

Santa: "Is there anything else you'd like to ask Santa?"
Caitlin: "Well, I guess, just...Are you the real Santa?"
Santa: "I try to be."

This is a painfully honest Santa, if not a bit obtuse in his replies. But the old guy didn't make a parent's job any easier. Caitlin is left with a cheesy miniature coloring book--its cover hawking the Parks mall--and the burden of trying to figure out just what Santa's half-assed answer meant.

"I guess he meant he tries to be his best and not forget anybody's toys," she says.

Santa in exile
The Galleria
LBJ Freeway at the Dallas Parkway, Dallas

We are, once again, northbound on the tollway, flanked by Chevy Suburbans bedecked with pine wreaths and Jeep Grand Cherokees topped with fresh garlands and red velvet bows. Ah, Christmastime in North Dallas.

Most mall Santas command center stage, with their thrones set in the middle of the shopping center for all to ogle. Not so the Galleria Santa, who is practically hiding out on the third floor of this toniest of malls, his faux gingerbread house planted in front of the as-yet-unoccupied Nordstrom store. No traffic problems here--you get the distinct feeling few parents even know the guy is here.

Just a handful of moms wait in line, their babies dressed in billowing taffeta skirts and velvet knickers. A poster at the front of the line tells us that all proceeds from Santa's Cookie-Land photos will benefit the Ronald McDonald House. A nice touch among the rest of the seasonal schlock.

Galleria Santa is nice enough; he passes Caitlin's muster. Real beard (and really, shouldn't this be the minimum requirement for a mall Santa in the '90s?), pink cheeks, and green knit gloves. Caitlin cruises through the line and reaches Santa in seven minutes. The old elf is something of a cornball--he offers Caitlin a high five, then pulls his hand away. Big yuk-yuk. As she walks away, he calls out, "Make sure you help out around the house, too!"

Despite this Santa's cuteness, I sense that Caitlin is doubting more than ever. "He could be real, or he could be just a helper," she muses. Shuffling along the carpeted floor of the Galleria, she hardly notices the nearby kid-trap--a model-train display--just a cookie's throw from Santa's house. At $2 for children and $3 for adults, we pass this one up.

Santa lets his hair down
Valley View Center
2040 Valley View Center, Dallas

Valley View Santa's residence is the coolest place yet--an elaborate poly-snow-blanketed village with big ABC blocks, blinking colored lights, and automated elves dressed in cowboy hats, vests, and pointed boots riding big wooden horses. Santa's throne sits inside a fancy white wire gazebo. But at 4:40 p.m. on a Thursday, the place is empty, and we are greeted with a sign that reads "Santa is out feeding his reindeer." There's no mention of when he'll return.

As we round a corner from the gazebo, though, we see him--a Santa on break, kicking back and shooting the breeze with two big-haired female elves who make the photos. Clearly entertaining the elves, Santa lets out a couple of raucous chuckles, which sound very unlike the "ho-ho-ho's" Clement Moore told us about. He has a real beard but a bushy white wig under his red, pomponned hat. His boots are shiny black Ropers. His belt is wide and black.

This Santa checks out on several levels. Basically, he looks OK. "But he's too skinny," Caitlin rules. He simply has no discernible belly--real or padded. Anyway, he's busy rappin' with the ladies and looks like he shouldn't be disturbed. We slip away quietly.

A plus: Valley View Santa gives out real candy canes--the kind Santa used to pass out everywhere, before he started schlepping Lucky Charms. Wrapped in plain cellophane, the canes are ad- and gimmick-free.

Take a number, bub
NorthPark Center
Park Lane and Central Expressway, Dallas

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