It was the first day of Santa School, and all through the class not a student stopped staring, not even the teacher.They were staring at me. I was about to become Macy's albino Santa Claus.

After suffering Santa jokes year-round since childhood and nursing a big white fluffy beard for almost four years, it was time for the real Santa to stand up. Not that I hadn't dabbled in this Santa business before. A centerfold as Hip Santa for San Francisco magazine, a modeling job as a Howard Hughes Santa for the National Lampoon. My most memorable refusal in the journalism business was two years ago when I had to say no to Hustler magazine's request that I write a Kinky Sex column for their Christmas issue. Image, you know?

The end of the decade at Macy's in New York seemed the appropriate time and place to check up on the Big Guy, to see how he was doing, to make a list of what was right and what was wrong with Santa in 1979.

To play St. Nick in Macy's Santaland you have to attend the Santa Claus school, a rigorous two-session seminar and a third meeting in which you walk through Santaland fully clad and run through a "practice drill" with designated lapsitters.

Our first day at Santa School, which was held in a 44th Street hotel in Manhattan, knocked me for a loop. I had no idea that Santa had come so far. Listening to some of the 20 offical Kris Kringle candidates talk Santa talk, it was obvious to me that Santa had endured sensitivity training somewhere along the line, carried himself more meekly than I had remembered, and spoke with a much more genteel, measured voice. Let's face it: the ho, ho, hos were hardly hearty. One colleague said "they've even got Christmas."

Before I entered my first Santa Class, and official from the personnel agency conducting the clinic gave his perspective on the whole matter: "Obviously everyone is here to make money." Inside the hotel suite, mostly out-of-work actors and dancers listened up for their Ps and Qs on the Santa dress code.

The two most important laws were simple and direct: One: Santa never appears in partial dress. Two: Two Santas may never be seen together once they leave the dressing room. Then we got to the nitty gritty. What's Santa supposed to look like?

The instructor went right to theory and practice. "You can't be a withering Santa. We much prefer, in fact, demand, the hourglass figure. Santa is supposed to be healthy. We don't want any anemics. So first we put on the makeup. Make him ruddy, paint the eyes, but absolutely no eyeshadow."

Next: the body. "Deodorant is a necessity, and make it a good deodorant and lots of it. T-shirts and udershirts are not required but are recommended." On to the high point of the class, the stuffing. For a good half hour, the class and instructor have a serious pillow talk. Some selected shorts:

"The most difficult part of Santa dress in securing the pillow. The two methods are the string around the neck or the tied-down corners."

"Always tuck all you strings inside. No strings attached to the uniform. Make sure the pillow is as comfortable as you are."

"Practice at home. It's hard. Once you get the pillow routine down, you should be able to dress in 30 minutes."

The rest of the dress-code class consisted mostly of demonstrations and a few of the do's and don'ts for the well-dressed St. Nick. Clean gloves, no bare shins, well-combed beard and fluffed-out hairpiece.

Before we go on. one more caution about the dress code. "No trimmings of the beard. If you do change the beard, I don't want to hear about it." Were we talking Santagate?

Class two was titled Problem Solving With Santa. What do you do if . . .

A brat slaps you on the cheek, tries to beat you up or mugs you? Answer: You carry no credit cards, cash, or expensive jewelry, and you smile and act as if the brat is a saint just having a bad day.

If . . . a youngster gets so excited he or she performs a natural function usually reserved for places other than Santa's lap? Answer: You excuse yourself to the dressing room, where an "Excitement" Backup suit is always available.

If . . . a child asks for a brother or sister? Answer: You tell them to consult Mommy or Daddy for that request.

If . . . the child is so afraid he can't come near and starts crying about it? Answer: You smile.

If . . . the kid is speaking a language you don't understand? Answer: Bluff a few words and smile.

If . . . parents or other adults want to sit on Santa's lap? Answer: Let them sit.

Then we got to the way it is in Santa's Real World. "Strike up a personal relationship with the children," said a Macy's regular whose job includes the upkeep of Santaland. "Ask them what they want. Ask them if they've been good all year. Make sure they're going to leave cookies and milk for Santa and then tell them Santa has something for them -- a coloring book." (The coloring book is actually an 8-page ad for Macy's Santaland.).

"Don't promise them anything," the instructor continued. "Tell them Santa is happy they asked for this or that and he'll see what he can do." So in 25 seconds, we had the nuts and bolts of being Santa.Which gave me a good reason for playing hooky for the dress rehearsal class. I spent the time pumping myself up in front of the mirror for Dec. 17, my morning in Santaland.

I was assigned the media cottage. "It's where we do our TV and press," the publicity lady informed me. The media cottage was next door to the cottage for handicapped children.

It took about 20 minutes on the job to find out that I had to become a member of CALS -- Commerical Assembly Line Santas. Santaland, you see, is based on the concept of the rapid accelerated turnover. It has to be. The day after Thanksgiving 10,000 people pass through four cottages -- and the count was up to 19,000 the Saturday before I sat in.

Macy's had to get Santa down to a science, and the scenario goes something like this: The tree elf greets the people as they enter Santaland; they wander through a maze of trains and toys, etc., for what might be as long as 25 minutes; they are accompanied to Santa's cottage by Santa's elf, and they go inside and spend about 30 seconds with Santa and his photo elf.The photo elf pitches Mom and Pop on pictures of Sonny with Santa -- $3.50 for one, $7 for two and the third free -- and make sure the little rascal is in place and looking at the hidden camera. It's all neatly arranged, packaged and numbered for efficieny.

Once in a while the line gets out of hand and Santa has to see the kids in groups -- in which case the routine is cut down to what's you name and what do you want? Thank you, next, please. Emergencies do pop up. During my 2 1/2 hour shift, the handicapped cottage was backed up quite a bit and some deaf children came to me. My Santa elf gave me a quick brushup on how to say ho ho ho in sign language. It worked. They smiled.

It sounds dehumanizing, factory-like and downright unfair to the kids. But it's the only miracle on 34th Street we have, and most of the children are afraid to go too close to Santa anyway -- fully half of the 250 kids I saw never made it to my lap. For those who do make it to the lap, it's better than heaven. The twinkle in their eyes as they ask for gas trucks, kissing Barbie dolls, perfume makers, Bat cars, guitars, My Dog Has Fleas, Star Wars or Star Trek, shuts your eyes to the crass commercialization of Kris Kringle. Who cares as long as the kids go away happy?

Is Santa for real?

The bottom line:

Three boys between 4 and 7 years jumped up on my lap and started pulling on the beard.

Tommy: "It's for real. It's for real. Wow."

Edgar: "No, it isn't. He painted it on.'"

Tommy: "The eyelashes . . . Wow."

Edgar: "He painted them on too." At this point Santa removed his soiled white gloves to bare his hands and arms.

Edgar smiled a grin as wide as 34th Street and said, "It is for real Santa is for real.'"