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

Since Santa takes a break from 2 to 2:30, Charlie guesses it will be at least 4 p.m. "But that's assuming everyone shows up," he says.

The dad exhales, turns on his heels, and stomps off. "Most folks are pleasant. They understand," says Charlie, who gives the distinct impression he likes exercising his cool power over this huffy North Dallas crowd.

The only thing that counts on the Santa line at NorthPark is your number. Nothing more, nothing less. Charlie swears he has never accepted a bribe.

Sam gets his turn with Santa Claus at 1:59 p.m.--60 seconds before break time. Their conversation is sweet, but brief. (Santa surely needs a bathroom break, I think). Sam ticks off his list: a water bottle, a stuffed dragon, a "blankie."

Mr. C. asks Sam to leave him chocolate-chip cookies and milk. Sam dutifully nods, and takes his complimentary box of four cheap, imported crayons and a coloring sheet.

"I like him," Sam says. "My feet hurt."
Mine, too.

As real as it gets
Red Bird Mall
3662 WEST Camp Wisdom ROAD, Dallas

Who would have thought we would find Him here, in the south Oak-Cliff mall with a tough reputation? But if you head to a quiet corner on Red Bird's first level, there he is--a Santa with laugh wrinkles, real white beard, ruddy pink cheeks, wire glasses, and a perfect red-velvet suit.

Red Bird Santa is surrounded by an impressive automated Santa's village, in which oversized mice are the key players, sawing wood and hammering nails. Naturally, drifts of poly-snow abound. And we can't escape the portrait-with-Santa come-on, in which prices range from $6.99 to $19.99. A nearby display hawks photo frames and ornaments. But the Polaroid pitch is actually more subtle than most places, with the cashier's table placed well beyond Santa's throne.

On our visit, a Wednesday afternoon at 3:15, Caitlin is third in line, behind two babies. She climbs aboard Santa's lap at 3:21, and shifts into high gear.

Santa (after introductions are dispensed with): "What would you like for Christmas?"

Caitlin: "A dog."
Santa: (Looking up at me as I grimace) "Well, you know before Santa brings live animals, he has to check with your mommy and daddy to make sure you're old enough to take care of them. And sometimes it isn't exactly the right time for a pet, so you might have to wait another year. Do you think you'd be happy with something else if Santa can't bring a dog?"

This Santa is smooth. He knows how to let a kid down easy.
Caitlin: "Yeah. A doll."
Santa: "I'm sure Santa can manage that. Y'all be sure to leave me a snack because I'll be hungry when I reach your house."

It turns out that our guy--all naturally chubby, jolly, and white--isn't the only Santa at Red Bird. He is, in fact, part of a multi-cultural contingent. Anglo, Hispanic, and African-American SantaS rotate in four-hour shifts.

"His lap was made for everyone," a sign at the front of the Santa line explains. "Christmas unites children of all races. In order to make the experience more enjoyable for all of our children, Red Bird Mall welcomes Anglo, Hispanic, and African-American Santas during our special photo times."

It makes perfect sense, this ethnic Santa delivery-system. We didn't find this approach at any other stop. It helps notch this Santa up to the top of our Santa-realness ratings.

Of course, his Texas twang helps.
We walk away from Santa and his red, velvet throne, weighed down with Polaroids, goldfish crackers, Nutri-grain bars, and a bilingual coloring book. Caitlin is beaming. She reels around and sneaks one last look at the guy who can make her dreams come true.

"He had such a good suit, and the right boots"--worn but well-polished black Ropers. "And he had a good deep voice. He smelled good. He looked the right age, about 60."

He passes the most crucial tests.
"But is he real?" I ask. "Is he a Santa Claus a 7-and-a-half-year-old can believe in?"

Caitlin shrugs and smiles. "Why do you think I asked him for a dog?" she asks. "It's a test.

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