Santa Claus is not dead, he is alive and thriving. He has merged with the photography industry and is spending a comfortable old age as a prop in glossy pictures of any kids whose parents are willing to pay the price. His young constituents don't seem to mind the commercialism, perhaps because the idea of Santa Claus transcends all his earthly incarnations. Besides, he gives them candy canes, coloring books, and plastic rings - as well as promises of presents. WARD'S/IVERSON MALL

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Santa is stationed in a cramped partitioned area at the back of the store, right next to the door that leads to the parking garage. He sits on a vinyl recliner, flanked by obviously ersatz Christmas trees. Young female helpers, clothed in modified Santa outfits, work the camera and collect the money. They don't, however, pressure you to buy the picture package. "They're just going to visit today," one of the helpers explained to Santa when I declined the photo opportunity. Ward's Santa is a genuine senior citizen, a grandfatherly type with kindly blue eyes. He seemed to enjoy holding children on his lap, but he wasn't exactly ebullient. Even though my kids weren't having their picture taken, Santa looked steadily at the camera. He gave them candy canes, however, making up for a host of omissions.

In Guide Michelin parlance, the Ward's Santa doesn't even merite undetour. But if you happen to be in the store buying a snow shovel or something, stop by on your way back to the parking garage. MONTGOMERY MALL

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Santa holds court on a throne on a carpeted platform in a gazebo-like structure on the lower level of the mall. Beyond his white beard, Santa didn't look a day over 30, and when he started pushing pictures I really didn't trust him. "Do you want a picture?" he asked eagerly. Since neither of my kids would get too close to him, the question was moot. "Just bring them around every day," he advised. "They'll get used to me." He didn't ask them what they wanted for Christmas, but his gift of a booklet of punch-out pictures with color squares that turn into paint when wet made a big hit. WOODIE'S/F STREET

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Woodward & Lothrop's Santa sits in an Ice Cave but is very warm and friendly and has a sense of humor. The Ice Cave is probably styrofoam, but it creates the illusion of a winter wonderland. The illusion of a winter wonderland.The illusion is enhanced, however incongruously, by the pink, purple and gilt hot-air ballons that hang over the area where kids wait for their turn with Sant. My four-year-old, too shy to communicate effectively with stangers, gave Santa a dictated list. This really cracked him up but he made a real effort to draw her out regarding each item. Despite his jolly demeanor, he seemed too young to be a really convincing Claus. His bread was obviously phony, and his eyebrows were caked with a blush makeup. My daughter didn't notice.She was too busy leafing through the coloring book he gave her.

THE HECHT CO./F STREET

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Hecht's downtown store has a black Santa Claus. He's young and thin and his paunch is obviously an additive. But he's very nice and jolly, in a jivey sort of way. Santa's duty station is in an obscure place among the linens on the sixth floor. He sits on a brocade wing chair in a setting that is noteworthy only because of its pleasant lack of a photo setup. Around noon every day, this obviously unsedentary Santa romps through the store to jolly the customers. We ran into him on one of the other floors, and he stopped and bent over to have a chat with my four-year-old, who like him. TYSONS CORNER CENTER

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Tysons Corner is arrayed with tasteful Christmas displays. There are ice-covered trees, mechanical elves and dolls from many lands on a sort of revolving music box. Santa's platform is framed by giant toy soldiers. They best part, however, is Saint Nick himself. He's a taller, bespectacled version of the Kris Kringle who performed miracles on 34th Street. A kindly old gentleman, he bent down to tie the shoe of an awestruck four-year-old in our party. He actually said "Ho, ho, ho!," but his voice had the resonance necessary to carry it off. As the Guide Michelin might say, Tyson Corner's Santa vant le voyage - "he's worth the trip." There is a photo setup, but no one even asked if we were interested. LANDMARK CENTER

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Landmark's Santa is ensconced in what is unabashedly called "Santa's Studio." From the outside, the studio looks something like those tempo buildings that used to clutter the Mall. Inside there are some tinsel-y-decorations and an oddly appealing stuffed dog that sits next to Santa. When the photo attendant, uncostumed, is busy taking orders, Santa can click the camera by a remote control switch. But he still manages to focus his attention on the kids. My four-year-old and her friend were giggling too much to day what they wanted, so he promised them surprises. He seemed to have trouble talking through his bread, but he had an appealing roundness that brought him close to the Saturday Evening Post ideal of a Santa Claus. Maybe that's why my 1 1/2-year-old consented to sit on his lap, a favor not accorded to any other Claus.

My older daughter said she liked this Santa best - because he gave her not only a coloring book but a red-and-green plastic Santa Claus ring, too.