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99.9 percent of the kids asked Horton Plaza's Santa for Pokémon stuff

"Some kids aren't as afraid of the Easter bunny"

— 'Subjected to the rational teachings of others, the child only buries his 'true knowledge' deeper in his soul and it remains untouched by rationality; but it can be formed and informed by what fairy tales have to say."

-- Bruno Bettelheim:

The Uses of Enchantment

This guy is not easy to get to. You know what I mean if you've ever tried it. Santa is mobbed in his makeshift little booth across from Macy's in Horton Plaza. His pavilion, sponsored by Rainbow Productions, a photography business here in town, is cluttered with camera equipment, lights and reflectors, a laptop computer, and an electronic photo-lab specialist working at high speed for instant quality pictures being printed out one after the other. Also, there are the children.

Sometimes as many as three or four will pose with Santa at a time. He will lean forward and listen carefully to what they're saying or trying to say; he has a way of putting them at ease very quickly. Their mothers (I didn't see any dads this Sunday afternoon) are fluttering, hovering at the tent flap of the booth on the platform just outside. Strollers and shopping bags contribute to the obstacle course between the jolly one and me.

Three kids are still hanging around after, talking to the bearded wonder. They are blowing up their little plastic antlers with a chin fastener that Santa gave them. A little kid named Mathew, maybe six, asked for a Gameboy. He can't remember what Santa said (some post-hypnotic suggestion possibly), but he's pretty sure he's going to get it. The older girl with him, Gabi, asked for the same thing, only with a camera. She's smiling like it's in the bag. A little blonde named Amber next to Gabi is, I'm going to say, seven or eight. She wants a Gameboy too and exposes her braces in a show of confidence.

A grown woman is in line without kids. Her name is Ronette, about 30. She's going to ask Santa for a car, a Geo. God knows why.

I push my way past a few mothers, knee a couple more kids to the side, and manage to get Santa my card. I ask him for an interview at 7:00 p.m. when he gets off. He agrees. I kill the rest of the afternoon at a James Bond movie, sitting in the back and writing on a notepad: questions for Mister S. Claus or whatever his real name is.

At 7:00, the Santa fans must be headed home for dinner. I've got the fat man to myself.

He looks like the real guy, all right, but you never know. He could be one of those deputies that go to Santa school, where they're trained not to drink or smoke or flirt on the job. Santa is still seated. Photographers and techs are dismantling the set-up around him. The man (or Saint) has young, bright-blue eyes, no wrinkles I notice. I introduce myself and ask him his real name.

"My name is Santa Claus," he looks surprised at the question. His voice is deep.

"How long have you been doing this?"

"Every day since a week before Thanksgiving. Two weeks solid. I'll be here until six o'clock on Christmas Eve, when I start delivering the toys around the world."

That's not what I meant, but fine, we'll play it his way. "Are you in a union?" I ask him.

"A Santa union?" There's that look of flickering puzzlement again. "Santa doesn't have a union. There is a group of my associates who do this at several malls around town, if that's what you mean."

"Do you really like kids?"

"Oh, I love kids, they're great."

"All of them?" This guy's a real politician, I can see that now.

"It's the fun part of the job. They come up here, and they twist their fingers and they can't remember what they want. I'll say, 'Pokémon,' and boom, they're your best friend."

"Pokémon is the big thing, eh?"

"Ninety-nine point nine percent of the kids have asked for Pokémon stuff. Either cards or pillows or movies or whatever. Girls, boys, all of them. I've got a few requests for Gameboys."

"Do you scare some of these kids?" I was flashing back to the traumatic stress I was exposed to at Marshall Field's in Chicago in 1955 when my mother pushed me toward a giant purple Easter bunny with leering buck teeth and a psychotic yellow stare.

"If they're two years old, they're scared. But if you can coax them in, make them feel warm and break the ice, they'll come around. Some won't even come through the door, though."

"Just between you and I," I ask him, "don't some of them get on your nerves?"

He laughs, "Actually, no. I've got a lot of patience. No one's come in here and tried to pull my beard off or anything like that."

"Does Santa have any kids of his own?"

"None that I know of. Ho ho ho ho."

"How old are you?"

"Five hundred ninety-two years old," he answers without hesitation. He exhibits no willingness to talk about his 1700-year history, his stint as a bishop in Turkey, his presence at the Council of Nicea, where he defended the divinity of Jesus Christ, the smear campaign he survived at the hands of Martin Luther.

"You have no recollection of events before that time?"

"No, not really. I'm a pretty old guy."

"So there's a little senility factor possibly? A little Alzheimer's thing going on maybe?"

"Yes, exactly. Ho ho ho."

"What do you do during the rest of the year?"

"I'm a professional entertainer. I do clown work and character work. I do balloons and magic. Birthday parties, company parties, malls. Like, I'll fill in for the Easter bunny once in a while if he needs it."

I tell him about my thing with the Easter bunny, and he seems genuinely sorry. "Some kids aren't as afraid of the Easter bunny as they are Santa Claus. That is unfortunate."

Santa went into the entertainment field, he says, "Fifteen years ago. It's not making me a millionaire, but I love it; it's fun. I love people, I love kids. It's something different every day."

I am dying to get to the one question in my notebook that goes to the heart of the Santa business as he's conducted himself for most of the 20th Century. To my knowledge, no reporter has ever confronted him with this. I'll be the first. But I'm losing my nerve. I have to remind myself I'm a professional; I've talked to plenty of celebrities. Where's my killer instinct?

Instead, I lame out and ask him if he has any seasonal advice for readers.

"Don't stress out," he says. "Enjoy the season, that's the point."

"Do you really know when kids are sleeping and know when they're awake?"

"Always."

"That's kind of creepy, isn't it?"

"Yeah, it is." He glosses over this masterfully. "A lot of kids ask, 'How do you get around the world in one evening?' They don't understand that there are time zones. I actually have more than 24 hours, more than the 8 hours of darkness at any given place in the world. I actually have 36 hours. That gives me a little extra leeway to get around the world."

"How is the sleigh powered?"

"Magic," he fires back. "Everybody asks that. Of course, there's the magical reindeer too. Rudolph, who leads the sleigh, and the magic of the sleigh itself. I can't reveal that."

I've been stonewalled before and I don't like it. "Rudolph was a concoction of an advertising copywriter for Montgomery Ward in the 1939!" He says nothing, just smiles at me as if saying, "If that's what you want to believe, that's fine with me." His smile makes me uncomfortable and I immediately regret my outburst.

I look at my notes and again try to screw my courage up for the hard question. I see notations from research I had done to prepare for the interview. Could I be in the presence of the same man who, over a thousand years ago, saved three neighbor girls from entering the life when their father went bankrupt, by tossing three bags of his own family's gold down their chimney? The story goes, the three bags lodged in the girl's stockings, which were hung by the fire to dry. Somehow this story translated into the basis for the three gold balls one used to see in front of pawn shops. Of course, the tradition of Christmas stockings has its roots here. Miracles, even resurrections, were attributed to this guy. His alias, Kris Kringle, Santa is on record as saying, means Christ child. It is a reminder.

It is impossible, historically, to find anything bad to say about him. His pagan origins are redeemed by so many good works (though facts and references are elusive) that you can hardly accuse him of being the anti-Christ or even an unlicensed pilot. I checked with the FAA on that -- there is no provision for flying sleighs, and he has complied with all regulations regarding air transportation of livestock.

I decide not to ask the question I had written that reads, "How do you respond to critics who say that, since the year 1930 and your association with the Coca-Cola Company, you have become little more than a corporate prostitute?"

I don't have it in me. I crumple up the note page and thank him for his time. He gives me another "Ho ho ho!" and wishes me Merry Christmas.

"Well, thank you," I say. "You too."

"Always" was all he said.

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