Pleasure of Being Santa for a Day : Bringing Wonder to Children Has Adult-Size Rewards

I was Santa Claus for an hour--actually, closer to an hour and 15 minutes--and I'm here to tell you that I found the experience fun and, to a great extent, not what I expected.

For years, I had wanted to put on the costume, beard and all, and play Santa to a group of children somewhere.

So when I called a few schools and social service agencies recently to offer my free services as a short-term Santa, I was encouraged to find a few receptive ears. I finally agreed to visit the Kathy Kredel Nursery School at Arcadia Methodist Hospital, a facility for children 1 to 6 years of age.

The outfit I rented included white gloves, bells, a sack and a very authentic wig and beard, although I will admit that having all that extra hair, even for a short period, proved uncomfortable, not to mention itchy.

Lee Walling, the director of the school, met me at the entrance to the school when I arrived at about 10:20 that Friday morning. I was already decked out as Santa, and she told me that the children had all been told that Santa would be with them that morning, that some of the kids were anxiously awaiting his, or my, visit, and others were very nervous.

It came as a real surprise to me that the youngest age groups liked Santa the least. I was escorted into six different classrooms, each for a different age group. The 1- and 2-year-olds reacted to Santa's visit with tears and cries of fear.

"These are the ages where the children are least prepared for changes in their daily routines," Mrs. Walling explained. "They don't really know about Santa yet, and to see some stranger showing up kind of upsets them." That was something I wasn't expecting.

In the two days before I visited the school, I went over in my mind what I would say on entering the different classrooms, and how I would handle the questions that were likely to be asked.

I knew I'd give it the old "ho ho ho" shout as I entered each room, ringing the set of bells and carrying the sack, which I had filled with balloons at Mrs. Walling's request, over my shoulder. I had a notebook with me, ostensibly so I could ask each child what he or she wanted for Christmas. This served as a perfect cover for taking notes on the experience. Several children, the bolder ones, came right up to me as I took a seat in the middle of each room and invited them to tell me what they wanted for Christmas. One little girl jumped right up on my lap and announced she wanted about 12 things before Mrs. Walling, standing right behind her, informed her and the others that they would have to limit their requests to three apiece.

Other children were different, circling me a few times before summoning the courage to step forward. I had expected many of them would try to pull the beard, and I wasn't disappointed. The beard persevered through constant tugging.

To make it easier to write in my notebook, I removed the right glove. One youngster, Bryan, came up and touched my exposed right hand and asked, "Are you a spirit?" That was not on the list of questions I had tried to prepare for, so I decided at that point to forget my preconceived notions and just wing it.

It's a good thing I did, because very quickly, I was asked one I hadn't really thought of beforehand, but should have: "Where are your reindeer?" I blinked behind the beard for about a second or two, then glibly came back with: "They're being fed over in the field near here right now, but since I'm the only one who can see them I can't tell you where they are."

But I topped even that one when the first of several children advised me that I might have a problem on Christmas Eve because their homes had no chimneys.

"That's not a problem," I answered. "You know, I have this trick where I can make myself so small that I can go right through the keyhole." A few mouths dropped open at that, and the magic of Christmas suddenly had a new dimension for me.

Since I am a father of a high school sophomore, I am not around small children very often and know very little about the toys that are currently in vogue among the younger set. Many of the kids asked for things I knew about--Barbie dolls, Spiderman wind-up toys. But then I started getting many requests for things called Voltrons, Gobots, and such. I'm still not really certain what all these things are, but I do know a lot of children want them, and things called Care Bears and Transformers.

Not counting the toddlers who cried at the sight of Santa, I saw about 80 children during my time at Kathy Kredel, and while I hope and feel most of them got as much out of the experience as I did, some of them stand out for me. There was adorable little Tiana, 3 1/2 years old, who was so shy at first that she seemed near tears, but who finally came up and whispered softly that she loved Santa and wanted a doll that went "goo goo" and "ma ma."

The most precocious of all the children I met was probably 3-year-old Brad. I suggest you watch for him soon on "Face the Nation" or if ABC needs someone to fill in for Barbara Walters. He's that good an interviewer.

Brad noticed I was wearing a watch under the red sleeve of my costume. He wanted to know why Santa would need a watch.

An easy one. "I have so many other children in so many countries to visit I need to make a schedule so I can plan ahead of time."

Noticing I was not wearing full black boots, but only boot tops above my street shoes, Brad challenged me to explain that oddity.

"Um, um," I stammered, trying to buy time. I finally came up with this: "When I'm in an area where there's no snow, I don't wear the full boots, but I keep them on the sleigh so I can put them on when I go some place where there is snow."

Upon entering each room, I asked the teachers to tell me which of their children had been good, and then I would check a "list" I supposedly had in my notebook. In my most paternalistic manner, I told the children that my records indicated that some of them had been "bad" one or two days during the past year. But that I would be willing to overlook those weak moments if they promised to behave from now on.

After I had visited the last room, Joan Annas, the school's assistant director, told me that Santa's appearance was being talked about in excited tones in each class, and she expected it would be the major topic of conversation for the remainder of the day. I appreciated that.

Taking off the wig and beard was nice, too.

Borstein lives in Monrovia.

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