Pausing to wave to a youngster yelling "Hey Santa" inside Iverson Mall, the man with the white beard leaned forward in his silver, red and white throne and told a visitor: "Yes. Something is different about this Christmas. The kids are asking for less.
"They say: 'Mommy says I can only have two things,' or 'Mommy says Santa does not have that much money,'" said Santa, who doubles as retired Prince George's County bus driver Wiliam R. Sanford.
A 10-year veteran of the silver, red and white throne, Sanford says he has used his perch to listen and gauge the Christmas spirit. "What I overheard is that things are not settled [economically and politically] and people are not buying more than they have to. I think [what the children say] reflect that . . . One asked me only for a Bible."
In downtown Washington's busy commercial districts, in Northern Virginia and Maryland malls, frowning faces of holiday shoppers mirror the consternation, frustration and disbelief they say they feel about high prices and loss of personal buying power. Some say it doesn't even feel like Christmas.
Also on many minds is the continuing saga of Americans held hostage in Iran. It colors the way shoppers say they view Christmas and the country's future. It will be a dark Christmas.
Several days ago, President Carter announced that the national Christmas tree will not be lighted as long as Americans are captive in Iran. But the hostage incident has captured attention of some children as well, according to Santas in local stores and shopping malls.
Children ask if even Santa Claus can get through to deliver presents to the hostages.
Clerks say stores are crowded with Christmas shoppers, but the volume of sales seems to be low.
Leonard Kolodny, manager of the retail bureau of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, says economic conditions have affected Christmas sales only slightly but declines to release figures.
"People come in, look at an item and say they will be back, but only about two of 10 return," said Frank Chatmon, a Sears salesman at Landover Mall. "They're looking mostly for barbains and they are very price conscious."
At the regional shopping malls, the scenario is the same: Shoppers touch garments, hover around circular racks but don't stay. They're like bumper cars bouncing from rack to rack.
At the Hecht Co.'s Landover Mall store in Prince George's County, a middle-aged woman in a gray pant suit and black turtleneck scans a virtual sea of sale signs on nearly every rack of the store's Town and Country section. She touches a sweater, takes it off the rack and holds it up. With the other hand, she puts the stem of her eyeglasses in the corner of her mouth and refelcts, then puts the garment back.
"I don't know if these prices are getting higher or my money is shorter or what," said the woman who asked not to be identified. "I don't want to spend the money for what I see."
Saleswoman Bonnie Spurlock of Raleigh's in Virginia's Springfield Mall said, "Shoppers seem to be hostile. They seem to be put out by the whole effort to shop.They don't even say 'Merry Christmas.'" Two coworkers standing near her nodded in agreement.
At Landover Mall, a man who will only identify himself as "John" from Alexandria, sat impatiently on a bench outside Sears waiting for a friend to return.
"Do I have the Christmas spirit?" he counters to a question asked by a visitor. "Hell no. The whole world is going to hell if they don't get this energy thing settled, I am sick and tired of the ayatolah, I am fed up to my neck with politicians, high taxes and too much government and these prices are outrageous."
He pauses taking a breather from his rapid-fire litany. "I do the best I can," he says, "but this is too much. No, it doesn't feel like Christmas."
Sales persons, store owners and shoppers surveyed emphasized Christmas will be different even for many of them. Some say that high prices may encourage a kind of old fashioned, noncommercialized Christmas, depending less on materialism and more on family togetherness.
It has become, they say, a matter of coping, cutting corners by limiting the number of gifts per person or the number of people altogether, of eliminating the out-of-town holiday trips to relatives and friends, of making more "homemade" gifts such as cookies, and sweaters.
Inflation and other economic problems have also reduced traditional holiday donations to local charities, including the Salvation Army, which is having its worst year in a decade.
Somehow, the children know all this.
"Children are more preceptive than we give them credit for," said Landover Mall Santa Steve Doyle. "They are sensitive enough to tailor their desires to fit the times, and for the most part, they aren't asking for much."
Fairfax resident Charlotte Gourley, shopping at a children's store in Springfield Mall, listened while store owner Polly Puff talked about rising iinflation, the energly shortage and the Iranian delimma. Gourley joined the conversation, noting that her five-year-old son was becoming aware of a number of things, including rising prices.
"He knows about price tags and he will pick something out and say, 'You're going to say no because the price is too high, right?" Gourley said.
Woodbridge residents Joe and Naomi Andrade sat on a bench at Springfield Mall with their two children, sipping Orange Julius drinks.
"Two things are on our minds this Christmas," said Andrade, a computer operator at the Pentagon credit union. "One is the hostage situation in Iran and the second is inflation and how that has affected our buying power.
"It means we have to be more selective in what we buy this year, and rather than buy a lot of things for the kids, we will buy one large item and a few smaller things," he said.
"Unfortunately, the kids want everything they see on television," said Naomi Andrade. "I say 'wait and see' or 'We don't need that,' which is my way of saying 'No.' Now when my five-year-old daughter goes into a store and sees something she likes, she will ask, 'Mommy, is that too expensive?" I think she hears me a lot."
For some parents, coping with inflation isn't easy.
Southeast Washington resident Janice Jackson, mother of four-year-old Tareik, said because of the high prices she put most of her gifts on layaway plans months ago rather than buy them all with one paycheck.
"It was the first time I ever did that, and it was kind of hard," said Jackson, a single parent. "But [her son] doesn't understand about inflation and prices, and so to keep his Christmas the way it always has been, the only way I could do it was to shop early."
Oxon Hill resident Betty Pass said she buys gifts for families or children as a group rather than give individual presents.
"Instead of one game per child, I am buying one game for three children," she said, searching a crowded toy shelf at Hecht's downtown.
"My seven-year-old niece said she knew we had to pay for her presents and she would be happy with whatever she could get."
"We're pricing more, checking one price against another," she said. "For example, one hippo game costs $10.99 at Giant Food Store, about $8.99 at Zayre and abouut $13 here at Hecht's. Those dollars make a difference. I've been going out three or four nights a week for the past three weeks and I've only bought five gifts.
"I really find myself looking and not buying," said Pass, a budget analyst for the Department of Energy whose husban is an operations manager at Howard University. "This is a very different Christmas for me, and it's got to be harder for a lot of people, especially a lot of people on welfare . . . . If those of us with adequate income are having trouble, think of those on welfare."
The subdued spirit of Christmas 1979 is even felt in the higher income areas of Montgomery County. Potomac resident Judith Holbrook, looking for belts in Montgomery Mall with her 15-year-old daughter Pam, said that instead of a lot of gifts plus the family's annual ski trip, this year the trip is included as one of the presents.
"We had to do that to be able to afford a trip," said Holbrook, whose husband is in the motel business. "Starting the first of the year, we're cutting back on everything. This year about one-third of my Christmas gifts were on sale."
"Except my Sassoons," Pam said of her designer jeans.
At Santa's village in the Woodward and Lothrop's downtown store, Santa Helen Scarr lowered her voice for serveral "Merry Christmases" as children from area schools lined up to see her.
"You wouldn't believe some of the things the children say," said the Santa, somewhat of a novelty that a few of the children didn't believe. ("Santa is a girl," one startled youngster whispered to her mother after sitting on Santa's lap.)
"One kid asked for 'peace on earth and the end of the Aya-Cola'," Santa said. "A few have confused me with the ayatollah because of my white beard. That's how much the situation has been on kid's minds.
"The other thing I've noticed about these kids is that when groups come here, the day-care kids ask for cheaper things, like dolls instead of doll houses," said the local social worker. "One kid asked only for a sandwich and a cookie."