In search of Santa

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.

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.

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

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?"

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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