The scene at Tysons Corner Shopping Center would do Hollywood proud.
Picture, if you will, 35 industrious elves making candy canes and wrapping presents in a Santa's workshop the size of a small house. Add to that 100 determinedly cheerful, twisting and turning motorized "children" from all over the world arriving at the workshop abroad Santa's "international express" train.
Several 13-foot-tall wooden soldiers, assorted dancing bears, and a clown doing headstands on top of a circus elephant contributing to the general, happy pandemonium. No fever than 60 twinkling "ice-light" trees and 25 live pine trees round out this "simple" Christmas scene.
It's all part of Christmas in the suburbs these days. With shopping centers around the metropolitan area trying to create an upbeat holiday spirit, fairylands full of animated storybook characters and make-believe confections that look good enough to eat have sprouted in a growing number of them.
And as they vie with one another to put on the biggest and the best Christmas display ever, some of their costly, ($95,000 at Tysons Corner) lavish displays have taken on the aura of a Cecil B. deMille or Busby Berkeley extravaganza.
At landover Mall in Landover, Md., for example, a gingerbread kingdom is floating on large platforms set down in the three fountains of the mall's main court. A live Santa Claus greets children (real ones) in his 20-foot-tall gingerbread castle, complete with icing.
Pixies make cotton candy, fix Santa's sleigh, and take cupcake-boat rides in the moat surrounding the castle. A smiling snowman presides over an ice rink where gingerbread figures skate back and forth. And a candy-cane merry-go-round outfitted with gingerbread horses goes 'round and 'round - merrily, or course.
The 75 gingerbread characters and 50 pixies that populate the kingdom (including the four other parts of the realm scattered around the mall) are surrounded by 750 Christmas ornaments and 1,000 giant snowflakes.
The displays at Tysons Corner and Landover Mall are among the most elaborate in the metropolitan area. And, like Holywood production numbers, they do not come cheap. Landover spent about $80,000 when it purchased its holiday display nearly six years ago. Tysons Corner which leases its "International Christmas" display, is spending $95,000 for this year and next.
They do it, as Tysons Corner promotion director Alte Faust put it, out of a feeling that "when you're coming to a mall at Christmas, it ought to look like Christmas."
Landover Mall general manager Fred Hauff put it another way: "Can you imagine walking into a shopping center with nothing in it?" at Christmas time.
But there is decoration, and there is decoration. Some shopping centers settle for a low-keyed approach - Christmas trees and wreaths, maybe a few snowmen or big candy canes. Downtown department stores still sometimes use animated window scenes. Woodward and Lothrop, for example, is devoting six windows to a story about two children and a mouse in search of Santa but even these usually do not match up to the sheer size of the displays put on in some malls.
The companies that design the displays generally agree that the growth of the enclosed-mall concept, mostly in the past 10 years, is the prime reason behind the development of the super-duper Christmas display.
With bad weather no longer a consideration, the malls could use motorized figures in their displays, Tom Brady, vice president of the Becker Corp., a Baltimore design firm, explained. And the large courts and walkways offered all sorts of possibilities for extravaganza.
There is also, of course, a competitive aspect to it all.
Perren Gerber, president of Perren Gerber and Associates, a display company in Wheeling, Ill., which created Landover Mall's gingerbread world, said that the displays have been getting much more elaborate the past few years partly because "one center does a big job, and the other feels it has to do a bigger job." He expects the one-upsmanship to continue.
Most customers, meanwhile, seem to like the results of it all. It may be the children who stare goggle-eyed at the dancing fantasy figures, but many adults aren't beyond enjoying them too.
Ellen Nelson of Silver Spring, who was shopping in Montgomery Mall in Bethesda the other day with her grandchild and other family members, exclaimed over the large white gazebos filled with animated children and animals scattered about the mall.
"It's so cherry here," she said. "It really gives you the Christmas spirit. And I think it's good for the grown-up as well as the children."
Nettie Rustin of New Carrollton, Md., came to Prince Georges Plaza in Hyattsville a few days ago simply to show its Raggedy Ann and Andy display to her two small children. Six-foot-tall stuffed dolls and larger-than-life-sized copies of a Raggedy Ann and Andy storybook carry the theme through the mall. The story, she said, was a family favorite, and she wanted to get pictures of her children with the floppy characters.
But some mall visitors express regret at what they consider the display's commercialization of Christmas. "I wish they (the malls) had more things about what Christmas really is," said Paula Wipf of Arlington one evening at Tysons Center. "After all, it is Christ's birthday, and what does all this have to do with it?"
To other Washingtonians, though, the malls fulfill their holiday function admirably, offering a bit of whimsy in an all-too-real world.
Lucy D. Cabell, a teacher at Maury Elementary School in the District, brought her class of first-graders to see Landover Mall's gingerbread world this week because she wanted them to get a tast of its make-believe. "You're only a child once," she explained. "This is a time to enjoy fantasy."