It's not easy being a legend. Ask any Santa Claus.

"Portraying one of the world's great international heros is an awesome responsibility," says Santa Joe Myering. "Meeting Santa may be the most exciting thing that's ever happened to a child, and if you're not convincing you could spoil a child's beautiful fantasy."

There are other challenges to playing Santa, adds the 25-year-old singer and actor who dons the familar red suit Saturdays at Lord and Taylor, Seven Corners, Va.

"When children get excited they tend to lose control of some bodily functions," says Myering. "You see a gleam in their eye, a smile on their face and a nice little gift on your lap. I excuse myself to feed the reindeer, and change into spare pants."

Despite the beard-pullers, shin-kickers and eye-pokers, Santa -- in a roasting hot suit -- must stay animated and jolly, notes Myering, throughout a long day of tot-hoisting and bear-hugging. And they're got to think fast to answer sticky question like: "How come I didn't get any presents last year?" or "Can you bring a new Daddy for my Mommy?"

Myering has had some special assistance for his Claus metamorphosis: He is trained as an actor and he hold a diploma from the University of Santa Claus (U.S.C.), run by Western temporary Services, renter each year of more than 3,000 Santas. Their half-day training session covers everything from how to make up your eyebrows to what to say.

Santa patter, U.S.C. style, has three basic sections: the invitation, recognition of the child and closing questions.

Invite a child onto your lap warmly and gently, recommends U.S.C. instructor and Western's Arlington branch manager Georgia Anthony. Comment on the child's appearance -- they've grown, they look strong and healthy -- and ask what they want to be when they grow up. Ask what he or she wans for Christmas. Keep listening until you're sure the child is finished.

The U.S.C. closing: "You've told me what you want, now I'll tell you what Santa wants." And then comes a plug for good health habits such as teeth-brushing, eating vegetables and going to bed on time.

Here are some other U.S.C.-endorsed suggestions for Santa:

Never promise a child anything. Parents may not be able to afford a pony or a space ship -- or any presents at all.

Refer to the adults a child lives with as "folks." Many children do not live with their natural parents.

Don't recommend a brand-name toy. Santa doesn't endorse any particular manufacturer.

Avoid boisterous Ho-Ho-Hoing. Children can be frightened by loud, fast actions. Speak gently and say "Hello, I've been expecting you."

Look to parents for cues. If a child asks for a sled, a parent may nod "Yes." If one parent signals "yes" and the other "no" (as happened to one Santa), say "Santa will surpise you on Christmas day."

Keep in character. Children will sense your moods.

Tell a child that Santa brings only toys. You may be asked, for example, to bring a baby brother or sister.

Bring a change of costume. Some Santas put a plastic sheet on their laps in case of an accident.

Use mouthwash and deordorant. Santa doesn't have garlic or cigarette breath and never drinks on the job.

Say "Ouch" if your beard is pulled .

Stay out of sight on a break. Never let a child see you take off your beard or scratch where it itches.

No flirting. Santa is married.

From some Washington area Santas, these additional suggestions:

Memorize the reindeer's names. "I got called on that one," says Billie Anderson, 25, a building restorer who is Santa Clausing at Prince George's Plaza. (They are Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen and Rudolph.)

Ask adults the same questions you ask kids. "They love it," says George Petersen, 22, an aspiring model.

"If a kid asks if you have any children" (also known as dependent Clauses), Petersen advises saying, "all children are Santa's children."

Remind children that Santa is an elf if you are the female variety and your size is questioned. Helen Scarr, 22, a social worker and a downtown Woodward & Lothrop Santa, also uses what she calls her "Yogi Bear throat voice." No youngsters have as yet questioned the authenticity of her voice, she says.

Play psychiatrist. Scarr, for example, when asked a difficult question like "What does God look like?" answers "What do you think he looks like?"

Keep a sense of humor, wonder and fantasy. Daureen Stanford/Fenner, who appreared as Santa recently at Woodward & Lothrop downtown, tells curious children "Santa is magic. He can be any color, shape or size. Am I black today? Well, today must be my black day."

This sense of wonder is also helpful in answering one of the toughest questions: "Are you the real Santa Claus?"

"When a child asks me that," says Joe Myering, "I say 'Are you a real little boy or girl or are you just someone dressed up like a little boy or girl?'

"When they say they're real, I say, 'Do you expect me to believe that? Well you sure look like a little boy or girl. Its all a matter of believing.'"?