WHERE TO SEE SANTA Many area department stores, shopping centers and even some nurseries will have Santas in residence from now until Christmas. Check individual establishments for Santa's schedule. Woodie's, Lord & Taylor and Hecht's are also holding Santa Claus breakfasts this Saturday and next at various branches. Call the stores for information and reservations.
Ms. Scarlett O'Hara, the preeminent social historian of the ante-bellum South, enumerated with great precision the acceptable modes of personal interaction with such categories of people as old ladies, young married women, other women's husbands and, at greater length, young bachelors.
Somewhat inexplicably, O'Hara neglected to have the proper forms of social intercourse with Santa Claus. After two seasons of extensive, if haphazard, research, however, I can report that in the post-bellum Washington metropolitan area, there are basically two things you can do with Santa Claus. You can have your picture taken with him and/or you can have breakfast with him. During the course of the above social interractions, you can, as subtly as possible, list gift requests and give evidence to prove you deserve them.
The following are accounts of actual encounters with Santa Claus in both social situations during the second annual Santa survey.
I was really looking forward to seeing Santa with egg on his face, or at least in his beard, at the Bird Cage, in LORD & TAYLOR's Chevy Chase store, but it didn't happen for two reasons. First of all there were no eggs, and second of all, Santa didn't eat breakfast with us. If there were really truth in advertising, this Breakfast with Santa would be billed "breakfast while waiting for Santa." Over a breakfast of orange juice, a banana, Danish and frosted flakes, which my kids particularly relished since they're not allowed to eat them at home, Chuckles the Clown, who is also a magician and ventriloquist, warmed up the crowd for Santa. The kids sat and ate their frosted flakes free from harassment whild the parents were served coffee and Danish at separate tables in the rear of the room.
Interrupted by periodic phone calls reporting Santa's progress ("He's just crossing the river from Virginia!" or "He's in a gas station on Wisconsin Avenue"), Chuckles had an elf puppet blow his nose so realistically even the kids thought it was yucky, produced a barking bird puppet that with much grunting laid an egg that turned out to be a lemon; and recited a sweet little poem about crushing a robin's skull. After 45 minutes of such appetizing breakfast entertainment, jingle bells were heard and Santa arrived bearing pink and white balloons. Underneath some half-hearted padding, Santa was a petite young woman with her eyelashes all in curl -- so petite that she had to strain to get some of the larger kids on her lap. None of the kids seemed to mind, especially when she gave them each a balloon, a candy cane and a Sesame Street puzzle. (Each kid also got a picture of Chuckles, with his phone number and the information that the clown is available for birthday parties.)
"When I sat on his lap," my five-year-old confided later, "Santa Claus sounded like a lady."
Since I had already explained that all the Santas in department stores and malls are only helpers (something you have to do if you drag your kid to see Santa eight days in a row every year) I seized the opportunity to explain about minority hiring and affirmative action.
At the breakfast in WOODWARD & LOTHROP's F Street store, eggs were served but Santa didn't eat in public view, causing one to wonder whether men with flowing white beards ever take anything by mouth. There was no formal entertainment, but there was a strolling trio that played Christmas music a la Lawrence Welk and several hostesses dressed as gnomes, Raggedy Anns and Little Red Riding Hoods who came from table to table passing out shopping bags from Woodie's secret shop, bookmarks plugging Woodie's bookshop and dreidle , little Hanukkah tops, a nice touch.
Another nice touch was that, as the kids dunked marshmallows in their hot chocolate and picked at their scrambled eggs and sausages, Santa came around to each table and squatted down to the kids' level to get their gift requests.
The kids could linger over breakfast, but Santa had to rush off to be at his post in the toy department, to which many of the kids followed him. As he waite for kids whose parents want them immortalized on Polaroid film with him (at $3.95 a shot), Santa was a believable figure, bespectacled and rosy-cheeked on a throne surrounded by toys available at Woodie's. He had a little trouble talking through his beard, and confided to a parent in an aside that between the beard and the padding, it was a lot hotter than at the North Pole. An attendant obligingly turned on a fan, making Santa sigh with audible relief.
The maze-like corridors of WHITE FLINT, a high-rent enclave in the visual pollution known as Rockville Pike, are decked with pert reindeer wearing hardhats and doing construction jobs, a theme that would have been trendy a few years ago. When my two-year-old had finished petting just about every reindeer, we came upon Santa, ensconced in a little house with picture-taking elves. The friendly and jovial Santa did nothing to disguise the fact that he was a young man. "He really had brown hair," observed my five-year-old. "I could tell by his eyebrows." Pictures here are $4.25 a shot, in case anyone has any doubt that White Flint is the high-rent district. They come in a plastic frame with the words "Christmas at White Flint" writ large on the mat, which may have status symbol value to some. Santa's coloring books are free.
At PARKINGTON SHOPPING CENTER, Santa sits in an oddly ethereal-looking snowcovered castle in a scruffy location on the edge of the parking lot. Inside, with the door shutting out the honking horns and acrid air, you might almost imagine yourself at the North Pole. Santa is a senior citizen with steel blue eyes, the kind of Claus only the old Saturday Evening Post could have conjured up. He chatted with the kids at length about school and siblings and welcomed them back with a gleam of recognition on a return visit after an extended lunch. Pictures here are $2.95 and come in a folder that doesn't plug the shopping center. The coloring books that Santa gives out, however, are all about the joys of Christmas shopping at Parkington.
At FAIRFAX MALL, a small but very pleasant and attractive shopping center at 10710 Lee Highway, there is a young, thin but enthusiastic Santa who pulls plastic dolls and motorcycles out of his pack. A packet containing enough photos to send to all your relatives costs $7.95, but there's no hard sell. Even after I declined the photo opportunity, the photographer offered to babysit for some of the kids while I took others off to the bathroom.
An equally powerful attraction at Fairfax Mall is the indoor carousel. You get a free ticket if you buy an ice-cream cone at the establishment right next to the carousel.
Yogi Bear provides the unifying theme of the Christmas decorations at IVERSON MALL in Marlow Heights, and Santa sits in a park-like setting surrounding by Yogi and his animal friends. As soon as he hears the patter of little feet, Santa starts intoning the "ho-ho-ho"s. His speech is a little mechanical and his features aren't classical Santa Claus features, but he looks like an old gentleman who needed a job and your heart goes out to him -- and to the shopping center that hired him. Also endearing is the fact that this Santa not only listens to requests but also, when parents are nearby at least, gives a gentle lecture on the virtues of picking up one's clothes.
At the Santa Claus breakfast at the HECHT COMPANY's downtown store, you get to finish your entire breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon and two large chocolate-chip cookies before any entertainment starts -- except for periodic tapes of loud, non-Christmas music.
Just when you've decided you've come on the wrong day, magician Stan Dubow starts pulling real rabbits and live doves out of hats. Finally, somebody finds a tape of Jingle Bells and Santa arrives, carrying a pack heavy laden with coloring books and plastic Santa rings. Santa is young, black and charismatic enough to make you forgive the apparent lack of any organization at the breakfast. When he sits down, no one tells the kids not to mob around him, but Santa finally persuades them to queue up. He takes each kid on his lap, saying "I'm going to bring you a whole lot of toys," to kids too shy to list requests, and asking each of them, with genuine warmth, to "give me a big hug now, hear." Up close, you notice that this Santa even cares enough to powder his eyebrows. When he's not in the restaurant, Santa holds court in a vinyl recliner on Hecht's 4th floor.
On the eighth day of the second annual Santa survey we needed a change of pace, so we went to visit Santa at BEHNKE'S NURSERY in Beltsville. A right jolly old elf of approximately the appropriate age and build and the most convincing beard of any we had seen, he received visitors and gave out lollipops on a sleigh-like platform in the Christmas Shop. Near the sleigh were a doll house and a set of electric trains -- which, refreshingly, were not for sale.Also refreshingly, no one offered to record the moment on film. It almost engendered enough Christmas spirit to make me step outside and buy one of Behnke's $40 Christmas trees.
Santa willingly suffered the advances of my two-year-old, who had developed a thing about fondling fluffy white beards. When my five-year-old, who had decided to get systematic about Christmas, handed him a lot of pictures she had clipped from a Toys R Us ad, he painstakingly unfurled them and gravely asked her to leave them with him.
Sagely, he never actually promised to deliver the goods. If he does deliver all the Barbie accessories and Holly Hobbie paraphenalia she requested, I'll get even with him next year in the third annual survey.