THE REAL Santa Claus is at the Mall in Columbia this year. But if even the real thing won't lure you Beyond the Beltway, there are some commendable stand-ins at other malls, and downtown.

We've rated the Santas by a highly arbitrary and subjective variation of the Guide Michelin system, awarding Ho's instead of stars. Three Ho's (HO HO HO) are a perfect score.

At Tysons Corner Center, Santa sits in a gazebo with a red tile roof, surrounded by dancing teddy bears, white poinsettias and snow-covered trees. A mirrored-glass ball hung from above creates the illusion of a light snow. It's a pretty scene, and Santa fits right in in the tableau. He's an elderly man, with kind blue eyes and a nice, quiet manner.

"What a pretty dress and what a pretty girl," said Santa as he settled my three-year-old daughter on his lap and listened to her requests for a pony, a unicorn and a Cabbage Patch Kid. Then he asked if she had been a good girl and acted as though he believed her answer. When she climbed off his lap he gave her a coloring book and called out: "Goodbye, Charlotte."

This Santa won points for calling her by name, and for being old, kind and gentle. He lost points because he was uncomfortable and fidgety with his false beard, and because his face was as white as snow. A little makeup could have brought him closer to the ideal painted by Clement Moore in "The Night Before Christmas": "His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry." We awarded him HO HO & 1/2HO.

The Santa at Springfield Mall receives visitors and poses for pictures against a backdrop of beautifully wrapped presents with a giant marionette looking on. He's a youngish Santa, pasty-faced but amiable.

"What's your name? How old are you? Is that this many?" he asked my daughter, then listened to her requests for a Care Bear and a Pound Puppy.

"I'll do what I can, but you've got to be a good girl," he said, doing her parents a big favor by promising nothing. This non- guarantee and the exhortation to virtue won him some points, but his obvious youth, his fidgeting with his beard and his lack of rosy makeup cost him a few. We gave him HO & 1/2HO.

At Prince George's Plaza, Santa's gazebo is topped by a Christmas tree and surrounded by toy soldiers and nutcrackers.

"I'll be with you in a minute," he sang out to the line.

He's an outgoing young Santa, with granny glasses and rouged cheeks and nose. And he has an excellent patter.

"Are you good in school? Are you eating up all your dinner?" he asked. "See what Santa has for you. This book has Santa's favorite songs in it. On Christmas Eve, just before you go to sleep, sing this song. Then I'll know you're going to sleep and I'll bring your presents."

At the end of the visit, however, this easy patter was replaced by a loud "Merry Christmas," which sounded like a recorded message or a mechanical toy. We took points off for this jarring greeting and for a sloppy eyebrow-whitening job and gave this Santa HO HO.

The basement of the North Building of the downtown Woodward and Lothrop is a reasonable facsimile of the North Pole. Don't wander down there with children unless you want to spend some time. There's Mrs. Claus' Kitchen, where kids can don aprons and chef hats and decorate a gingerbread man. There's Santa's Secret Shop, into which they can disappear with your charge card; and there's the toy department itself, where they can play with everything they want for Christmas.

Playing with a $70 Petster, a mechanical cat, reminded my daughter that she'd better pay her respects to Santa Claus, who sits in a small room with a Christmas tree and wrapped presents. He is young, black, with twinkling brown eyes peering over granny glasses, a properly rouged nose, and a full, fluffy beard. The beard, however pretty, proved his undoing, because he could barely make himself heard through it.

"Well, Santa will see what he can do," he shouted through his beard when he heard about the Petster.

We took a whole Ho off because of this communication barrier, leaving him with HO HO.

You've heard of "A miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer / With a little old driver so lively and quick / I knew in an moment it must be St. Nick." Well the modern urban version of the legend is available for boarding every Saturday from 11 to 3 in front of the McLachlen National Bank at 11th and G streets NW. Instead of a sleigh and reindeer, there's an old- fashioned carriage pulled by a splendid white steed named Blue. Santa, who sometimes drives and sometimes sits in the carriage with the passengers, is young, plump, jolly and black. The rides, which cost 50 cents for children and a dollar for adults, buy Christmas food for the needy.

On our ride, Santa sat up with the more experienced driver and took a lesson. We understood because, after all, he has to be ready for his upcoming big night. Understandably, he had to pay close attention to traffic and really couldn't talk to the passengers. He did, however, call exuberant greetings to downtown pedestrians. On subsequent rides, we saw him riding in the carriage, holding children on his lap and doing all the things that a Santa should do. For this, and for using his 'sleigh' to raise money for charity, we awarded him HO HO & 1/2HO.

But the real Santa, the same Kris Kringle that Edmund Gwenn played in "Miracle on 34th Street," is not at Macy's but at the Mall in Columbia. That may seem almost as far away as the North Pole, but as the Guide Michelin would put it, this Santa "vaut le voyage" -- he's worth the trip. The Mall is also beautifully decorated, with big pots of poinsettias, sparkling lights and hanging snowflakes and stars. There's also a toy train children can ride for 75 cents.

Santa waits for children in a wing chair in a little red house whose windows are framed in sugarplums. He's the kind of Santa who could make even the most skeptical child into a believer. He's an elderly man, complete with age spots and a real white beard and mustache. His blue eyes twinkle over granny glasses and he has a gentle but knowing manner.

"Give me a big jump, up on my lap," he said to my daughter. "What a pretty little lady."

She could hardly think of anything she hadn't already asked of other Santas, so he told her that "if you think of anything else, write me a note. And be sure to give your grandma and grandpa and mommy and daddy lots of love."

He gave her a cookie. We gave him a HO HO HO.