Because there's no need for kids to tell Santa Claus what they got for Christmas, this is the last day grown men get to dress up in red velvet and enthrone themselves at shopping malls. Today is the end of the grandest of all seasonal employment opportunities -- playing Santa.

Tomorrow, many won't have a job at all.

"I had a job before, making pizza," says Ken Dean, in full Santa regalia inside Wheaton Plaza. "I was only getting paid $4.60 an hour, and that's not enough to live on." So at $7 an hour, for about 40 hours a week, the 23-year-old Glen Burnie man has been Santa Claus at the mall's photo concession.

To be Santa is to walk a tightrope. One must distribute cheer and optimism, while carefully marshaling expectations, avoiding promises, discouraging greed, inviting hope. It is a balancing skill that will have to serve these men well, now.

"I'm looking for another cooking job after Christmas, which I hope I can get, or I'll be hurtin'," Dean says. "I don't have any college education or anything, so I've just got to pretty much take what I can get ... I live on a shoestring."

The "meaningful downturn" in the U.S. economy won't make it any easier for erstwhile Santas. Until November, Bob Knott of Burtonsville was making deliveries for his brother-in-law's express courier service. "But when the gas prices got as high as they did, I really couldn't do that," he says. "{I was} paying $500 or $600 a month for gas, just to run my route every day."

This season, Knott has been the full-time Santa at Laurel Centre. "Believe it or not, I'm actually able to make ends meet a little better," he says.

Knott, 30, first played Santa Claus here a year ago. He was hired by a jewelry store in the mall after the holidays, but he lost that job when the store closed for remodeling. This year, Knott, who prides himself on "customer service," hopes to get a job with another Laurel Centre merchant and says he's had some offers. "Not only do they think I can bring in the customers here," he says from his big Santa chair, "but I'm the exact same when I'm out of this suit."

Joe O'Connell of Leesburg, Va., won't be totally jobless when his 25 hours a week as St. Nick at Tysons Corner Center come to an end. "I've got another part-time job as a chaplain in a jail," the 47-year-old man says with a robust laugh.

O'Connell's real game is "international air cargo logistics." For the past eight years, he specialized in buying bulk space on airlines and retailing it to small users. But he resigned his job at the end of November. "It's not really recession-related," he says. "I just didn't want to work {for that company} anymore."

This is O'Connell's first year as Santa, and the benefits have been more than financial. "I had a lot of bitterness in my old position," he said, "and I needed to do something to get all of that out of my heart."

He plans to return to the air cargo business and says he's dealing with a "short list" of seven companies. "Somewhere between January 15 and February 1, I'll be making a decision."

Michael Bullock of Northeast Washington isn't so confident about his future. He says his 35 hours a week as Santa Claus at Landover Mall have been "the most hours I've had in a couple of years."

"I've worked doing recycling for a friend of mine, and I've also done some moving... . I worked for a pet store for three days out of a week," says Bullock, 33. "I've been trained as an electronic technician, but I haven't been able to get a job in that field. It's been real rough. If you don't have the experience, no matter how much school you got, it's real rough to get in."

So rough, in fact, that if his trade school job placement counselor can't help him find work after the holidays, Bullock might very well embark on a great adventure. "I plan to walk the continental United States," he says. "I've been unemployed long enough that how much money I make doesn't make a difference anymore. I could live off the land. I've done it in practice runs around the city, finding various edible things."

Bullock wants to walk to Mount Shasta in northern California, then settle there, keeping a journal "on what I ate along the way, and where I got it. Sort of make a map as I go."

As he leaves Santa's workshop in Landover Mall for a lunch break of nuts and juice, Bullock walks toward the up escalator, waving to shoppers and belting out a hearty "ho, ho, ho."