If you took Clement Moore literally, you'd have to believe that Santa Claus leaves the North Pole one evening after supper, carrying in a small sleigh enough toys for all the children in the world, and delivers the goods to billions of families around the world powered by nothing but reindeer and Christmas Spirit. Maybe in Moore's time, when the world was less complex and Santa didn't have to bother with hoi polloi, this was feasible. The world, however, has changed since then and Santa, savvy old guy that he is, has changed with it.

Aided by computer data, he sets up staging areas in heavy population centers. On the day after Thanksgiving he sends one of his corporate vice-presidents, in uniform, to each of the staging areas, most of which are in shopping malls. The vice-presidents remain at the staging areas for about a month, recovering from jet lag and gathering marketing information from children. They cover their expenses by posing for pictures with said children.

Santa's vice-president arrive at the staging areas not on a "lawn with a clatter," with "a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer," as in Moore's imaginings, but in a manner and in a conveyance more suited to the local culture.

At Springfield Mall, for example, Santa's representative arrived in the parking lot via a golf cart driven by a woman in a fake fur coat. Thomas A. Edison High School girls in red-and-white uniforms waved red-and-white pom-poms, the band played "Deck the Halls," and a television camera recorded the scene. The person in the Santa Claus uniform waved to the crowd in the same slightly frozen manner that Queen Elizabeth uses, and we paraded into the mall behind the band and several Sesame Street characters. Inside, the mall was decked with gingerbread kiosks encrusted with gumdrops. In keeping with modern times and the local culture, the gingerbread and gumdrops are plastic.

One of the plastic gingerbread kiosks was labeled "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer's House," and, at intervals, the deer would stick its head out the window and say in a shrill female voice:

"Hi, everybody. Want to come up and give me a kiss and touch my nose?"

Every time a kid did, the nose lit up.

The fanciest ersatz gingerbread kiosk of all was Santa's throne, its columns topped with plastic upside-down ice-cream cones. In front of it stretched a long line of children in their Christmas best and adults busily brushing the children's hair. By the time they got to the head of the line, many of the kids were crying and ill-tempered. My own three-year-old, Caroline, was just plain scared.

"I changed my mind," she said, quickly darting out of reach and losing herself in the crowd just as our turn came. This gave me an excuse to decline the offer of Polaroid pictures of older, unshy Tabitha on Santa's lap.

Springfield's Santa seemed dwarfed by his elaborate plastic gingerbread setting and was undersized for the role anyway. He was also too young for the role and his eyes were too bready to twinkle. Attempts to make him more ample failed, since most of his padding seemed to be around the upper chest. He also seemed rather wooden with the kids, perhaps because this was his first day. He redeemed himself, at least partially in Tabitha's eyes, by offering her a choice between a coloring book and a candy cane. Nevertheless, our considered opinion of this Santa rep was Ho Hum.

The next stop on our search for the perfect Santa was Wheaton Plaza, where Santa poses and promises in a cozy white cottage with red shutters and a snow-covered roof. The cottage looks as if it's seen better days, but at least it's not plastic.

Santa was out to lunch when we joined the queque, but Big Bird and Cookie Monster kept us entertained until Santa returned, escorted by a Polaroid photographer. He stopped to talk to kids along the way, in contrast to the imperial manner of the Springfield Santa rep.

"Can I get a picture?" asked a kid in line.

"I don't think so. It costs a lot of money," replied his mother.

"But you'll get money from Santa for Christmas," protested the kid.

Inside the cottage, Santa sat on a red vinyl throne, warmed by a fake fireplace, and graciously suffered crying infants and long, long lists. With one kid, he patiently discussed every item on a sheet of lined paper filled on both sides. In both demeanor and appearance, this Santa rep, though he obviously wasn't a genuine old man, lived up to the Saturday Evening Post ideal of a Santa. He had a rich velvet suit, a curly, luxuriant bread, and twinkling blue eyes.

My younger daughter again changed her mind, but my older child sat on his lap for an extended period discussing the merits of "Simon," an expensive electronic game that Santa said was one of his favorites, too. We gave this Santa rep the highest rating: Ho Ho Ho.

Santa is an equal-opportunity employer with a number of minority vice-presidents, one of whom is at Landover Mall this year. Young, round-faced and black, he reigned in a lavender Disneyesque castle in the midst of a mall decked with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck wreaths and equipped with a miniature train (35 cents a ride, kids under eight only). The castle sat in a dry fountain into which some litter had drifted, but the warmth and good nature of the Santa rep made it seem like a magic kingdom nonethless.

Either because she has steeled herself or because the Santa figure appeared so friendly, my three-year-old agreed to sit on his lap. After the photo elf had recoreded the breakthrough on film, an eight-year-old came to join the conversation.

"Why don't you come sit on my lap like everybody else is doing?" suggested the Santa, who soon had three kids on his ample lap. Although my three-year-old could still not bring herself to talk, the other kids carried on a long conversation, much of which was about "Simon."

"I don't think Santa can afford "Simon," I chimed in.

"It's expensive," he agreed, "but did you know Toys R Us is having a sale on it? Only $22.50."

This was unselfish advice, since there is no Toys R Us at Landover Mall. Or maybe he just wanted me to buy it so he wouldn't have to. This Santa rep didn't have any candy canes or coloring books, but it was a measure of his charisma that the kids didn't notice until much later. Our verdict: Ho Ho Ho.

Women have also made it to the top in the Claus corporation, and one of them works out of an ice cave at Woodie's F Street store. Things were pretty slow at the ice cave when we arrived, so Santa greeted us as soon as we stepped off the escalator and spend a lot to time with us. She was young and petite and had rouge on her beard, and my older daughter spotted her right away.

"I think he's a lady," she whispered.

Even the voice, which started out deep, soon became rather high-pitched. This Santa was, however, an original and informative conversationalist.

"Tabitha? Why, that's not Tabitha. Last year Tabitha was only that big," flattered the Santa rep. As to the importance of good behavior, the Santa admitted that even he/she made mistakes.

"I always tell myself "Santa, you try harder to be more considerate to Mrs. Claus and share your toys with her.'" As to a snack to leave out for Santa and company Christmas eve, the Woodie's rep allowed that Santa liked either milk of apple juice but that the reindeer's favorite treat was cinnamon, mixed with ice or sprinkled on snow.

This Santa rep's only flaw, other than the minor one of rouge on her beard, was in straining credulity by trying to act like a man. We regretfully had to withhold top rating: Ho Ho.

The Mazze Gallerie is very tastefully decorated. There are pots of real poinsettias, and wreaths with velvet bows, and not a piece of plastic in sight. Every Saturday from noon to four the Santa rep sits in a wicker chair near the Kron chocolate boutique, and he also has class. Granny glasses frame his blue eyes and his face is properly ruddy. Though not elderly, he seems comfortable with the children in a fatherly sort of way. My three-year-old, finally getting into the swing of things, hurled herself into his lap. She was still too shy here to "have your mother make a list."

My more observant older daughter noticed the one minor defect that deprived this Santa rep of our highest approbation.

"I could see his real hairs in back," she said. "They were brown."

Tabitha seemed so intent on these brown hairs that she didn't reel off her usual list of requests, so I decided to help her out.

"What about Simon?" I coached, hoping that maybe she had changed her mind about Simon.

"But I already asked two other Santa Clauses for that," she protested.

"Don't worry about that," the Mazza Galerie Santa reassured her. "We all get together. You won't get duplicates."

Santa's computer staff is probably processing that data right now. If his personnel manager is reading this, our rating for the Mazza representative is Ho Ho Ho.