There he was, that jolly old soul with his white beard, red hat and soft, jiggling belly. He was the mistletoe mascot, the No. 1 symbol of the season, and he was surrounded by a circling line of about 400 fans. But to the 2 1/2-year-old girl on his lap, he wasn't Saint Nick. He was monstrous.


Emma Ziegler was sobbing, her face a blotchy red. She was ruining the $20.99 picture.

So her mother, Mary Jane, who waited an hour and seven minutes for this moment, started desperately grinning and bouncing up and down, like an eager Rockette. She stood next to Santa's photo elf, a woman with two-tone hair and a happy red apron. Frantically, the elf shook four silver bells in Emma's face. The message was clear: Dang it, Emma, this is fun! Smile!

Emma cried harder.

It was total bedlam at Westfield Shoppingtown in Annapolis yesterday. Santa sat on a purple throne, surrounded by a lime-green picket fence and three Christmas trees. "Celebrate the Season," read the pink archway at the start of Santaland, and as children waited to enter that magical kingdom, they picked up the fake snow and threw it at each other.

Bells jangled endlessly, and the blender at nearby Vaccaro's Italian Pastry Shop buzzed with the force of a chain saw. With its cacophonous energy and swirling pastels, this Seussical North Pole felt like the inside of a caffeine headache.

In fact, the place was so crowded that in an average hour, Santa saw about 51 children -- and spent about 70 seconds per child. Those who cried stayed about nine seconds on his lap before the camera flash went off, and their mothers came around to ask, as Mary Jane Ziegler did, "How bad is it?" The mothers bought anyway, spending $11.54 to $26.24 on a Santa picture package.

From Santa's perspective, this season between the day after Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve can be just as difficult. You can't eat or drink much, or you'll need to take too many bathroom breaks.

Plus the kids get sick -- "I had one little boy throw up on me today," said Baltimore area Santa Claus Tony Benedetta, 62 -- or they lose control of their bladders, though that problem seemed better this year than in years past, he said.

"It used to be," said Benedetta, a Santa with 14 years' experience, "that at one time, they would leak on you. But these new Pampers seem pretty good. Even my wife has noticed. She said last week, 'I'm amazed your suit isn't as dirty as it usually gets.' "

Last week, he said, Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) stopped by with his son and sat on Santa's lap. "I asked Governor Ehrlich, 'What do you want for Christmas?' And he said, 'A balanced budget.' "

Still, said Benedetta and George Hipple, a retired Santa who lives in Laurel, no matter how raucous and disorganized, how crowded and tedious the month can get, nothing beats it. Nothing.

"You can't imagine what it's like having 20 to 25 children all trying to hug you at the same time," Hipple said. "You just love every minute of it. Children are the best."

Hipple spent 14 years at the Mall in Columbia, where he became a legend among parents, and the stupendous lines to see him "went from Hecht's all the way up!" Yet even he remembers confronting the Sobbing Emma problem over and over again.

"Oh, those children are out there, in the line, and they're just waving, happy as a lark! Then they'd get up to me, and start crying. And their mother and father want that picture so bad, you can't imagine."

So he perfected a few techniques. He never stood up in front of them, because in a red suit, "you are something monstrous to them. You gotta get down." He would ask, " 'Can I see your necklace?' And next thing you know, they're climbing up on your lap."

Benedetta's strategy involved leaning over and asking, "What does a puppy dog say? What does a kitty cat say?"

Yet Santa's is a relatively becalmed zone of tranquillity inside the roiling crowd. No matter how loudly the kids cry, it cannot compare with a stunningly long line. At one point yesterday in Annapolis, a mother, grandmother and tow-headed son stopped at the edge of the line to watch. "Do you want to write him a letter?" the mother suggested to her son.

"No! I want to see him!"

"Hmm." The mother looked again. "We're gonna go home and write Santa a letter."

Deep inside that hubbub, Emma's mother was writing a check for four 3x5's, while her daughter grinned merrily and chewed the Twix cookie Santa gave her to lure her onto his lap.

"She wanted to do it," her mother shrugged, handing the pictures to Emma's grandparents to see. Now the Zieglers had their keepsake Santa memory, and already, something better was beckoning. Emma had been promised a special lunch.

"Okay," Mary Jane Ziegler said, ready to fulfill the only Christmas wish that could be better than a visit with Santa. "Which way is the McDonald's?"

At malls across the area, children and their parents waited in long lines for brief visits with Santa Claus. Here, 7-month-old Simon Leandro has his picture taken with Santa at the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City.JaNiya Pinkney, 2, explains to St. Nick what she wants for Christmas.Grace Chahine, 5, of the District, waits in line to talk with Santa.