The scene was typical Christmas chaos at the University Towne Centre shopping mall a few days before the holiday. People with bulging shopping bags hurrying from jewelry store to camera shop, salespeople hawking goods and long lines at cash registers.
But perhaps the longest line of all was in front of Santa's house where mothers and fathers with fashionable Aprica baby strollers and well-dressed children in tow queued up to see that jolly old elf in the red suit.
Three-year-old Sheila Cooper was there with her mother, Nancy. In time, Sheila was urged up onto Santa's knee to be bounced and hugged, to be asked if she had been a good girl and to have her picture snapped.
"It's for the kids to look at when they get older," Cooper said. "And it's for the grandparents to look at now, but a lot of it is for the parents themselves, because we remember our own good memories of Santa."
To a generation that some social scientists have described as materialistic and self-centered, Santa Claus seems to have remained a durable ideal.
Despite the push by parents for their kids to excel at an ever earlier age, despite the age of the "gourmet baby," they still want Johnny and Susie to believe in the fantasy of Santa and Mrs. Claus at the North Pole, of miraculously efficient elves and of flying reindeer, just as they did, social scientists say.
San Diego psychologist Steven Hirsch said that while some parents may use Santa as a way to control their kids, most parents are handing down a benevolent and happy tradition.
"Some parents might say 'Hey, I'm going to tell Santa on you' as a way to get kids to do things, but most parents condition their kids to see Santa as a positive image, as a father figure," Hirsch said. "That image can evoke memories of Christmas and allow parents to think about their own past--of their childhoods--in a positive way."
Even so, Hirsch said, many parents tend to forget the fears and anxieties associated with Santa and to idealize what they remember.
"Most parents don't remember that they might have been petrified the first time they sat on Santa's lap," Hirsch said. "Sometimes it is not as good for the kids as it is for the parents. They only remember the good things about seeing this guy who brings you everything you want. But it's nice to have a myth to hand down. People need heroes, and in a sense Santa is one."
At Mission Valley shopping center, Santa is set up in something that looks like a dark plastic igloo, adorned with green wreaths and red ribbons. Parents and kids enter and are greeted by "Santa's helper" at one door and exit through another door, next to cash registers that ring up a brisk business in "pictures with Santa."
M. J. Heggeness of Tierrasanta explained that each year her children get their pictures taken with Santa, so that year after year of Santa pictures can be placed on the mantel or sent off to grandma--like a family rite. And that is exactly what it may be, said Stanford folklorist Renato Rosaldo.
Rosaldo said that through such traditions, families tell themselves stories about who and what they are.
"How a family opens the presents, how they feel about Santa, how and when they sit down to dinner, these are all family traditions that become intertwined with the myth and the reality of Christmas," Rosaldo said. "And in a sense, this is what keeps the myths going. It might culminate in a day, but a lot of the things associated with it--the generosity, gift giving--continue in our day-to-day lives."
But Rosaldo said that too often, in today's young families, the giving is an extension of "consumerland."
"Many of these young parents live in a world of commodities--very upwardly mobile--and even a portfolio with Santa becomes an extension of this," Rosaldo said. "If they baked cookies and gave them to the kids, it would be a little different."
Kathy Cates, the West Coast regional manager for Rich Studios, a firm that provides Santas and Santa's helpers and Santa set-ups for shopping malls around the country, said that parents in the so-called "Yuppie" generation are still looking for traditional values and goals to pass on to their children.
"I think parents know that if they (kids) don't have something to believe in now, they won't have anything to believe in later," Cates said. "They want to offer to their children a fantasy to believe in, something that they believed in themselves. The idea of giving gifts, generosity, love--that is something that no parent in any generation wants to detract from."
And so Santa endures as he always has. Four-year-old John Brison of Rancho Penasquitos knew that the Santa inhabiting the pine-tree forest at La Jolla Village Square was not a real one.
"He's just a man dressed up like Santa," John said. "Everybody knows the real Santa only visits on Christmas Eve."