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— 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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