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

Dropping in on NorthPark Santa Claus for the first time is a lot like visiting a private club where you don't know the rules.

We arrive at Santa's Victorian living room across from Lord & Taylor on a Friday morning at 10:15, thinking we have beaten the biggest crowds. But already the seasoned moms and dads, the ones who know the NorthPark drill, have clogged the hall in anticipation of Santa's 11 a.m. arrival. I will learn all too quickly that a chat with the King Elf here is no quick and dirty deal.

NorthPark Santa works on a first-come, first-served basis--sort of like a bakery, except you have to go next door, to Neuhaus Chocolate Shop & Cafe, for a croissant and coffee. Anyway, you take a number, and Santa's head elf--on this shift, a jovial, 350-pound guy in red gimme cap and sweatshirt--gives you a rough estimate of when your two minutes with Kris Kringle will roll around. That way, you can stroll the mall, eat, spend money, eat, spend more money, and come back.

Charlie is swamped calming ruffled parents who want quicker service, so I decide to do my own math. We are number E63. The first number of the day is D1. A mom in the crowd explains that each alphabet sequence runs from 1 through 100, so we will be 163rd on Santa's list. Only one ticket is given per family, with many families numbering three or more children. With two minutes for each visit, and assuming each kid shows up at the designated time, we can expect to see Santa (who stumbles out of a faux fireplace on his set in a puff of smoke at 11, does a group story time, and doesn't begin chat and photo sessions until 11:30) in three hours--at best.

Luckily, I brought Caitlin's little brother Sam along this day. A pretty easy-going fellow, he's happy to hang around the mall all day so long as he gets a reward for his trouble--in this case, a catapulting Hot Wheels car. Caitlin is home with a 101-degree fever.

I am told there is method to this bureaucratic madness. Last year, NorthPark management changed to the ticket system after years following the stand-in-line tradition. It was easier on parents' thin seasonal patience, and, "our Santa is so popular we wanted to make sure every child had the fairest chance of seeing him," says Frances Gallagher, a "media elf" with--I'm not kidding--Santa's NorthPark News Service. "It's become a tradition for hundreds of families to come early, get their number for Santa, and just spend a day with the family at NorthPark."

Apparently so. The mom who filled me in on the number system, who has two preschoolers in tow, tells me, "We come here every year. This Santa is so adorable. Have you ever seen him in person?"

When I shake my head, she quickly reaches into her purse and pulls out a folded newspaper ad featuring the jolly, real-bearded, ruddy-cheeked Santa. "Here he is," she says, almost breathlessly. "He's wonderful."

It turns out that everyone but me, apparently, knows about NorthPark Santa. He's a seasonal celeb. For 11 months out of the year, he is Carl Anderson, an Austin child-psychologist and adjunct professor in educational psychology at the University of Texas. He's been doing the mall-Santa gig for 13 years in Austin, Los Angeles, and, for the last seven years, at NorthPark. He's been the star of umpteen newspaper feature stories and wins readers' "Best Santa" polls time and again.

A storytelling Santa with a Ph.D. And here I thought St. Nick was a lowly but humble illiterate elf, eking out a living in a wood shop at the North Pole.

In a telephone conversation during one of his two daily breaks, the 42-year-old NorthPark Santa tells me, "People have been doing double takes of me ever since I grew a beard right out of high school. I'm a pretty good-sized Swede--6 foot 2 and 250 pounds. No padding, no fake beard. It's all me."

Some 70,000 kids have plopped into his lap during his tenure at NorthPark. By December 24, he figures he'll hit the 100,000 mark. He says he's fairly compensated for his services, but won't tell his salary.

So, OK, NorthPark Santa does cut a cool figure. Sam likes his look, at least the quick glimpse we get of him before strolling the mall for nearly four hours awaiting our turn. We hit McDonald's, F.A.O. Schwarz, Imaginarium. We languish at the pecan reindeer-display; the origami-decorated evergreens; and the cute and splashy penguin exhibit, where Fidget, Pogo, and Weezer from the Dallas World Aquarium are drawing crowds. Fifty yards from Santa's digs, the SPCA of Texas has set up an "adoption center" for dogs and cats. A good way to kill about 10 minutes.

By 1:30 p.m., we scurry back to Santa. Charlie is still managing crowd control. A harried father wearing a pressed denim work shirt, freshly laundered jeans, and tasseled loafers is putting the full-court press on him.

"Look," says the frantic dad, who looks like he's a stockbroker or corporate lawyer when he isn't leaning on the hired help, "I have to pick up my daughter at school at 3. I'm number A24. If I go get her and come back, when can I expect to get her in? 4 o'clock? Earlier? Later? When?"

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