CULTURAL RELATIVISM has come to Santa Claus criticism, but that doesn't mean standards have been thrown out with the crumpled Christmas wrapping paper. Let me explain. In this age of doing-your-own-thing, a good Santa doesn't necessarily have to fit the mold cast by Clement Moore or "Miracle on 34th Street." If he talks like a good ole boy or looks like a black Buddha or ho-ho-hos with a Spanish accent, that's cool -- as long as the ho-ho-hos come from the heart.
In this year's trek to shopping malls and department stores, we found one Santa of classic perfection (at Mazza Gallerie); one who exuded Latin charm (at Woodie's downtown store); one cherubic black Santa (at Hecht's downtown store); and one very likeable good ole boy Santa (at White Flint Mall). We came across only one Santa who was truly blah (at Iverson Mall).
Here's the rundown.
THE SOUTH OF THE BORDER SANTA: There's no law that says that Santa can't come from the South Pole instead of the North Pole, be young instead of old, have brown eyes instead of blue, and talk like Ricardo Montalban.
The Latin Santa seemed a bit stiff at first and could have used a better make-up job. But he soon warmed up, and the children warmed to him. More important, he asked relevant questions: "Have you been good? Do you drink your milk? Did you get good marks?" And when my sub-three-year-old, Charlotte, stuck her fingers in her mouth out of sheer nervousness, he gently removed them. He also proved quite skillful in calming screaming babies who really didn't want to have their pictures taken with Santa.
Santa's setting is not Hispanic but classic Yankee, with throne, Christmas tree and reindeer made of twisted white sticks. It's in the basement of Woodie's North Building, right next to Santa's Secret Shop. There's also a place where elves help children decorate Cristmas cookies, which the kids then get to eat.
THE CLASSIC SANTA: "Now he really looks like Santa Claus!" said my daughter Caroline as we approached the antique red sleigh at Mazza Gallerie. She is only eight but has been reviewing Santa Clauses since birth and has very definite and traditional ideas about what the old guy should look like. This is the Santa for such traditionalists. He has his very own white beard and mustache and twinkling blue eyes framed by granny glasses. He is also quite perspicacious.
"I want you to stop scrapping," he admonished two sisters. "And I dropped by a few nights ago and your room looked a little messy. I'll make a deal with you. You stop fighting and straighten up your room and I'll bring you some special things for Christmas."
He endears himself to parents by making no specific promises to deliver the camera, stereo, "lots of Esprit clothes," or the pink Mumble Bunny from F.A.O. Schwarz.
Santa's sleigh is parked on the first level of the mall, but he's only there on weekends. The rest of the week he's inspecting children's rooms.
THE GOOD OLE BOY SANTA: White Flint's Santa sits in front of a calliope and looks and acts a little like the Wizard of Oz when he was a snake-oil salesman in Kansas. He's a lot younger, however, and although he's nicely padded, his beard is a bit straggly. He's a little hard to understand, since he talks through his beard, but if you listen closely you'll hear the same musical accent that was popular here when Carter was in the White House.
Still, he's an outgoing, warm, friendly, mildly flirtatious Santa who's especially popular with the teeny-bopper set. He also deals well with requests for things like "lots of Esprit clothes."
"Well those are nice clothes you have on," he countered. "What's wrong with those?"
THE BENEVOLENT BLACK SANTA: There is no rule book on black Santas, so they don't have to rouge their cheeks if they don't want to, and the one at Hecht's downtown store doesn't. Maybe consistency should rule however, which would dictate that if he wears a white beard he ought to have white eyebrows and lashes, which he doesn't. But this is an unimportant technicality.
Hecht's black Santa sits on his throne looking like a beneficent Buddha. He's young and pleasantly plump with a twinkle in his brown eyes and a cherubic smile on his face and a good repertoire of ho-ho-hos. He is friendly but doesn't come on too strong -- which is important since some children, conditioned at an early age to white Santas, shy away from him.
Santa's throne is located in the children's department on the second floor of the store, which is convenient, in a way. Kids can actually pick up the Cabbage Patch bedroom slippers and other coveted stuff and bring them over to show to him.
THE HO-HUM SANTA: To be fair, it was the end of a long, busy Sunday for Iverson Mall's Santa. But Santa's supposed to have enough spirit to transcend body weariness, and, anyway, this one was too young to have tired blood. And Iverson Mall used to have a grand old man of a Santa Claus, which would be a hard act for anyone to follow.
This Santa didn't even seem to try, however. He asked the kids what they wanted, but didn't seem to listen to the answers. He didn't even crack a smile, but just said, mechanically: "Well, I'll see what I can do."
My 11-year-old daughter Tabitha, a born cynic, thought his lack of warmth had something to do with the fact that we declined the offer of photographs, but, on observing Santa with kids who did have their pictures taken, I found him equally blah.
In any case, head on out to see the Santa who fits your own lifestyle, your image of what he should be. Pick one of the above or find your own ideal Claus. They're all around town; although Santa can get around to every mall and store, Santa Claus critics can't.