"Santa," the 7-year-old boy said, looking up in amazement at the heavy-set bearded man dressed in red. "How are you going to get down my chimney on Christmas Eve, when we don't have a chimney, 'cause we live in an apartment?"

St. Nick was puzzled.

Santa knew the names of all nine reindeer, was prepared to sing the "Twelve Days of Christmas" verses backwards, and had even figured out how to say "Merry Christmas" in seven languages.

But they hadn't taught me how to deal with this question when I received my degree from the University of Santa Claus. The instructors at Western Temporary Services had spent several hours training the carefully screened Santas to deal with a myriad of circumstances -- but not this one.

"We're gonna do something different this year," I quickly told the boy. "We're going to try front doors."

In Santa school, we were told to always be prepared. "We cover as much as we can in a short time," said Ginger Richardson, who heads Western's Washington office. "But be on your toes, because we can't cover everything."

The mother stood quietly watching as her six-year-old son bounded onto Santa's lap in Georgetown Park and began reciting the list of presents he wanted for Christmas. While the boy asked for four items all costing at least $60 dollars, the mother held her hands over her face, realizing that the boy would be disappointed with what he was getting.

"I wouldn't get my hopes up for some of those things," Santa cautioned the child. "This has been a tough year with money in many families and we all have to be more understanding. Remember, Santa has a lot of children to take care of this year, so he's cutting back so that he doesn't miss anyone, like last year."

Explaining economics to 6-year-olds was not something Santa particularly enjoyed doing. But with inflation still on the rise, it was one of many brutal realities Santa had to deal with.

This has been a tough year to be Santa. The commercialization of the holidays and rising costs have affected the celebration of Christmas for just about everyone. Fewer children are fascinated with Santa. By the time most of them reach the age of 6, Santa's secret has been let out.

Santa's role has changed accordingly. He is still a great listener, but now, in addition, he must be a psychologist, philosopher, and actor. He must also be able to explain why a child didn't get what he asked for last year. Children don't forget.

The stout little dark-haired four-year-old boy had been staring for 45 minutes at Santa Claus sitting under the 11-foot Christmas tree, as his mother was shopping in Georgetown Park Mall. He was scared to approach Santa. If Santa was a fictitious character, what was he doing standing in the middle of the mall saying "Merry Christmas" to passers-by?

"Merry Christmas, young fella," Santa said. "Would you like a candy cane? Would you like a to come up on Santa's lap and tell him what you want for Christmas?"

The boy did not budge: he appeared riveted to the floor. He stared up and down at the man, checking out every detail of Santa's appearance. Finally, the boy stumbled toward Santa with great trepidation. He still did not get on Santa's lap. Instead he stood in his shadow, apparently dazed by this storybook image come to life.

"Are you the real Santa Claus?" he asked?

"Are you a real little boy?" Santa replied?

"Of course I'm a real little boy," the child said defensively.

"Well, then, of course I'm the real Santa. How can I be sure you are a real little boy?"

"I am a little boy, really," the child said with a quiver in his voice.

"Santa believes you. So why don't you tell me what you want for Christmas."

After he asked for a fire truck and some other things, Santa told him what he wanted in return: brushing his teeth, eating vegetables, going to bed on time and a promise to go give his mother a big hug. As the boy moved away from Santa's side, the wise old man said "Santa doesn't promise anything, but he'll do the best he can for you."

The boy ran off and gave his mother a big hug. Then, 10 minutes later, the child was back. "Santa," he said, this time with confidence, "I love you."

Being Santa Claus can be a trying experience. Santas have to really love kids to put up with all the beard-pulling, shin-kicking and eye-poking they go through.

Santas are taught how to deal with almost every conceivable situation, from putting on makeup to responding properly if a child asks for a baby brother for Christmas.

These days, kids are refreshingly up-front in telling Santa what's on their minds. Many Santas prefer toddlers, because kids with beginner minds don't question, criticize, judge, evaluate or analyze. They simply accept. The Georgetown Park Santa was more interested in inquisitive children.

At many times, Santa seemed like a carefully packaged mannequin, on display at all times, hiding any emotion he had under the hand-waving and smiling everyone has come to expect of Santa.

The Santa Claus training school warns Santa to do or not to do many things: Never promise kids anything, because the parents may not be able to afford it; refer to adults a child lives with as folks, not parents, so as not to upset the child of a divorced or separated parent; avoid endorsements of specific products; avoid boisterous Ho-Ho-Ho-ing (it can scare the child); and stay out of sight during breaks, because you can't risk having a child seeing you without a beard.

Even for an experienced Santa, there are always enlightening experiences, including fending off the sexual advances of both men and women, who obviously wanted something more from Santa than a candy cane and a smile.

Luckily, there were not any over-excited children. When young children get excited, they tend to lose control of some of their bodily functions.

In training school, Santa is told to make good use of his reindeer. One Santa trainee phrased it: "You see a gleam in their eye, a smile on their face and a nice little gift on your lap." That's when Santa says "Excuse me, I have to go feed the reindeer." Santa quickly disappears to change into spare pants.

The questions Santa is asked are a constant surprise, especially from those older than 7, because one never knows if they think Santa is real or not. The challenge is coming up with responses according to the age of the person on Santa's lap.

Two examples: Does your reindeer fly? "Well, with the costs of airplane rides in the past couple of years, we've been thinking of taking the train." Does Santa eat meat or is he a vegetarian? "Santa has trouble justifying eating meat and then working with his reindeer. He is a vegetarian."

While most requests for gifts are feasible for Santa, a few quick-witted youngsters did leave the wise old man searching for a response.

"And what do you want for Christmas?" Santa asked the uniformed 22-year-old military man.

"A discharge."

"And what do you want for Christmas?" Santa asked the attractive-looking high school girl.

"Good grades."

Some questions Santa just can't respond to.