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— '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."

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