He is a man of near-mythic talent, an awesome combination of physical dexterity and personal charm.
He would be the stuff of make-believe were his feats not so real and oft-recorded: the nocturnal Christmas Eve flights in his reindeer-drawn sleigh; the inimitable body control as he slides down chimneys with his sackful of toys; the merry pursuit of making little children happy as he leaves his bikes and puppies and kitties under Christmas trees.
The mere mention of his name, Santa Claus, fills us with wonder. How does he do it? the wide-eyed children ask, and adults are hard put to explain. All we know is that in a world of phony kindnesses, Santa is a reminder that people can be good and kind without being unctuous.
Plus, the man has an insatiable appetite for cookies.
To children, he is perfect. To adults, he is the one person about whom you cannot be cynical.
But precisely because he inspires such adulation, there are, sadly, impostors in our midst. Children who visit the malls of Orange County this holiday season will encounter some of them.
"Santa doesn't get sick, smoke, drink or flirt," says Tammy Goodson, who conducts Santa training sessions for Western Temporary Services. "He's the perfect person. He can't do any of those things. He can't wear his Rolex watch. He does not ride on buses or down the street on a motorcycle in his Santa suit."
Mimi Dahle also trains Santas for Nix Special Events in Carson. This year, she will have proteges in 16 Southern California malls, including Orange County.
"It's a very abusive, tiring and hot job," Dahle said. "You really have to be a special person to play Santa. It's not as easy as you think. I fire maybe two a season for not doing what they're supposed to do. What happens is that their attitude changes. They find it's so hot, and they're constantly complaining that they want a break. We only allow one break."
But surely, the perfect Santa must be out there somewhere. What follows is a log of visits to 13 major malls in Orange County that offer Santa Clauses this Christmas season. It should be noted that not all Santas were observed, because some malls use more than one.
IN SEARCH OF THE PERFECT SANTA
Buena Park Mall: The Santa set was appealing, with its simulated ski lifts, evergreen trees dusted with snow, stuffed animals and two seesawing bears. However, Santa had some problems. His wrists were too thin, the beard was not good and the belt rode too high. He had an excellent voice, and while he got points for stopping and shaking a baby's hand as he walked in the mall, he lost points for saying "ho-ho-ho" far too frequently.
It brought to mind what Dahle said about training a roomful of Santas: "We tell them to wave, and if they want to ho-ho-ho, they can once in a while, but not all the time because it becomes obnoxious. . . . They really have to say ho-ho-ho in a certain way." The best ho-ho-hos, she said, "are from the ones you can tell really mean it."
Westminster Mall: An enchanting set. Children walk over a wooden footbridge and along a path that leads through snow-covered evergreens to get to Santa, sitting in a sleigh. But while the Buena Park Santa overdid it, this Santa, alas, was too reserved. Kirsten Jenkin, 3, offered this first-hand assessment: "I couldn't see his mouth." Asked if Santa offered a "ho-ho-ho," Kirsten replied, "I wanted him to say it to me, but he didn't."
Huntington Center Mall:At first glance, the overall look wasn't good, but what a personality. The beard, which appeared to be real, was too short and looked grayish--not the snowy white we've come to expect. In addition, gray hair showed under his hat. The Santa suit was maroon, not the authentic fire-engine red.
But every one of the children who sat on his lap during a 30-minute period seemed to love him. During an exchange with a little girl walking on the mall, Santa said: "How old are you? Three? Wow! You want to come tell me what you want for Christmas?" At first reluctant, the little girl was charmed. But 9-year-old Chris Kontoes of Huntington Beach couldn't overlook the obvious: "His beard could have been a little bit whiter. It was sort of grayish. His conversation was pretty good, and I'd give him points for niceness."
IN SEARCH OF THE PERFECT SANTA . . .
"They have to have a lot of enthusiasm," Tammy Goodson had said. "Santa never shows his moods, even if someone has just had an accident on him, he doesn't show it. He just gets up and puts up the 'Feed the Reindeer' sign and goes to fix the problem. With a little kid, they can get you right up in the beard if they're especially jumpy."