Casting the role of Santa Claus is becoming more and more difficult, and casting directors -- who double as shopping-mall and department-store public relations people -- usually don't have the luck of Maureen O'Hara. In case you missed the 1947 movie classic "Miracle on 34th Street," which really defines the form of Santa Claus, O'Hara, as honcha of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, has to fire a drunk Santa just as the big parade is about to begin. By some miracle -- literally -- the real Santa happens along at the opportune moment and applies for the job.

Well, things like that may have happened back in 1947, but these days the real Santa has to stick pretty close to the North Pole and his all-important role as executive toymaker. Malls and stores have to find actors to play the part, and, unlike Edmund Gwenn in "Miracle," most of today's Santas can't just sit on their thrones and act beatific. Today's Santas are sometimes required to perform feats that plump, bearded old men just can't manage.

At LAKEFOREST MALL in Gaithersburg, for example, Santa had to make his entrance ice- skating -- backwards -- around a rink with some giant penguins. Although he did not seem to have been chosen for his skating ability, this Santa was a competent skater and managed to skate while holding on to his precariously anchored wig and hat. Can you imagine Edmund Gwenn skating -- even frontwards? Neither, apparently, could the casting director, who solved the dilemma, Hollywood-style, with a stunt-man stand-in. While the skating Santa, a tall young man with an aquiline nose, slipped into the dressing room to slip out of his skates, the switch was made. The Santa who emerged to lead the band and the crowd around the mall was at least a foot shorter and 30 years older. The eight-and-over set noticed the change immediately, but nobody minded. The Santa who led the parade to the little locomotive in one of the mall's sunken lounges was a close approximation of Clement Moore's "right jolly old elf." Rotund and red-nosed without benefit of rouge, he wore his hat at a jaunty angle and greeted young visitors with a jolly "Hello, Sweethearts." He was at ease holding children on his ample lap, and his only flaw -- which may well come with the territory for actors -- is that he was more of a talker than a listener. He was more adept at conjuring up visions of Barbie dolls and doll houses than at finding out what the children wanted or whether they deserved anything at all. He tended to throw in "Ho, Ho, Ho" whenever there was a split second of silence. This reviewer took away one of Santa's possible five candy canes for not being a good listener and one for the stunt man's lack of resemblance to the lead actor, giving his production an overall rating of: 3 1/2 CANDY CANES

PARKINGTON SHOPPING CENTER in Arlington required its Santa only to cling to the back end of a fire truck, a feat even Edmund Gwenn could have managed, but the casting director hired a tall, slender, young, athletic type anyway. The makeup department did its job well, however, and Santa, in powdered eyebrows and rimless glasses, looked the part. Santa also seemed comfortable in his role. Unlike some young men who are scared to death of children, this Santa acted appropriately paternal, putting kids at their ease with a friendly, "Hello, I haven't seen you since last year." Bearing in mind that this was a relatively low-budget production, we gave it: 4 CANDY CANES

At FAIR OAKS MALL in Fairfax, Santa came down a glass elevator, the modern mall's symbolic approximation of a chimney. The entry was theatrical rather than athletic, and Santa's only chore was to sprinkle some sort of magic dust on the child actors of the Fairfax Community Theater to aid in the denouement of a production called "Christmas Magic." We were pleased to see that the Santa chosen for the part was a genuine senior citizen, properly rotund, albeit more pasty-faced than ruddy-cheeked. Even this relatively non-strenuous entrance seemed a bit much for Santa, who looked dazed as he led a throng to his North Pole listening post. The line he attracted was too long for us and we left to wait in line at Burger King instead. When we returned about an hour later, we were greeted by a very different Santa, one of three sharing shifts at Fair Oaks, according to the elf who snaps instant pictures of children with whatever Santa is on duty. The Santa we met was quite young, and his accent hinted of the South Pole rather than the North. He was well rouged and powdered, however, though even my eight-year-old could tell that "he really has black hair." He advised tongue-tied youngsters to "go home and write me a letter" and admonished all of them to "promise to help more by keeping your rooms picked up." This may have been geared to win over an adult, to whom he added in an aside: "I try to help the mothers out, too." That boosted his rating, and only the black hairs lowered it again to 4 CANDY CANES

LAUREL CENTER's Santa was young and tall with an obviously fake paunch, but he tried hard to please -- and succeeded. Instead of sitting regally in his rustic gazebo with its faintly incongruous Dutch windmill, this Santa rose to greet approaching youngsters, thereby making himself psychologically more approachable. He quickly established a rapport with the child on his lap and appeared genuinely interested in Christmas lists. He did, however, have trouble talking through his beard. A more serious flaw in the production -- though certainly not with the Santa role -- was the photo elf, who, in her eagerness to get on with the business of taking instant pictures, tended to rush the visit with Saint Nick. My eight-year-old, who is something of a connoisseur, having assessed about 30 Santas over the past five years, liked this one the best of any this year, though she didn't know why, exactly. This made me want to give him a high rating, but the overeager elf brought it down to 4 CANDY CANES

The Santa at GEORGETOWN PARK on M Street NW can blame the lack of costume and makeup support for his fatal flaw: a naked neck. This Santa sits on a bench at the bottom of the building, where people can lean over the garlanded ironwork balconies and gaze down at the sandy hair poking beneath the back of Santa's cap. This lack of attention to an obvious detail is all the more striking since this Santa has twinkly blue eyes and a personality that can make even babies relax and coo for the cameras. "Tell me all about yourself," he says to older children, and actually listens when they answer. The naked neck brough his rating down to 4 CANDY CANES

BEHNKE'S NURSERY, on U.S. 1 in Beltsville, has a Santa who works weekend afternoons only, which may explain why his performance seems fresh and spontaneous. He receives young visitors in a red-and-green sleigh in Behnke's Christmas shop and, though young himself and apparently clean- shaven, he has white hair and a beard more luxuriant than any we have seen on the Santa circuit this season. It can't be said of this Santa, as the late Natalie Wood said to Edmund Gwenn in "Miracle," that "at least you don't have one of those beards that ties behind your ears." But the beard is well cut around the mouth to allow for clear speech. Cosmetics aside, this is a Santa observant enough to notice a child's missing front teeth and perspicacious enough to say to two sisters: "You don't fight, do you?" It's B.Y.O. camera at Behnke's, and the Santa gets docked only half a candy cane and only because we had just seen a rerun of "Miracle on 34th Street" on television the night before. 4 1/2 CANDY CANES

We didn't get out to MONTGOMERY MALL in Bethesda to visit its Santa Claus, but we understand that on Monday and Wednesday evenings this Santa is accompanied by an interpreter for the deaf. This seems so much in the spirit of the real Santa Claus that, even sight unseen, this reviewer gives the Montgomery Mall Santa its highest accolade. 5 CANDY CANES