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Santa’s Triumph : Goddaughter Recognizes Him--as Real St. Nick

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mrs. Claus was peeved with Santa.

“You’re going to ruin Christmas for her!” she snorted when I announced that I had invited our 4-year-old goddaughter to the mall to sit on my knee. “She’ll recognize you.”

Christmas is little Rachel Pringle’s favorite time of the year. And St. Nick is her favorite person--although Cinderella and Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” run close behind.

When Rachel becomes irritable, her mother quiets her by discreetly rattling a set of car keys. The jingle-bell sound is meant as a motherly reminder that Santa knows who’s being naughty and nice.

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Rachel spent months thinking of her Christmas list before she finally sat down two weeks ago to write to Santa. In an elaborate ceremony, her father ritualistically burned the letter in the fireplace of their Glendale home and told her that the smoke would waft to the North Pole, where Santa would read it.

In short, Rachel is a believer. What better kid, I decided, to test my ability to pass myself off as a true Santa.

By last weekend, I’d spent three weeks portraying Santa in shopping centers and elsewhere around town. I figured I had the slow-gaited Santa walk down pat. Ditto the Santa talk--the patter about what children want for Christmas, the milk and cookies they plan to leave out for me and the importance of brushing teeth and going to bed on time.

“Santas always wonder about it, but I don’t think you should have any fears about being recognized,” said Jenny Zink, head of the Santa Division for Western Temporary Services, who has hired 3,500 St. Nicks across the country this month. Costumed Santas even go unrecognized by their own children, she said.

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But Mrs. Claus was not a believer. “Rachel will know who you are,” she fretted. “You’ll destroy her.”

I was undeterred. To make the test complete, I arranged for several of my nieces and nephews from Valencia to also visit with Santa. Mrs. Claus threw up her hands when she heard that.

When the big day arrived, though, I wasn’t certain myself how things would go.

As Rachel stood in my mall Santa line, I glimpsed her watching me shyly. Her parents seemed to be laughing at me.

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But Rachel beamed when I greeted her by name. And her eyes grew large when I told her that I had read her letter. I recited her rather eclectic Christmas wish list: ballerina slippers, a camera, a cash register and a fruit bowl.

She chattered about how she helps watch over her little sister, Mariah, and how she minds her folks and eats her vegetables. As proof, she tried to comfort Mariah when the 1-year-old joined her on my lap and promptly burst into tears.

As the visit ended, there wasn’t a flicker of recognition. Ho, ho, ho , I smugly laughed to myself. This is a piece of cake.

A few minutes later, however, my nieces and nephews showed up.

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Matthew, Adam, Julia and Lauren Bradley closely scrutinized me as they waited in line. Matthew, 10, had a sort of bored, I-know-who-you-are expression. Adam, 8, was staring hard. There was a puzzled look on his face.

Five-year-old Julia bounded happily to Santa’s knee, followed by Lauren, 2. They talked about wanting dolls and a puppy for Christmas and then scooted back to their parents while their brothers took their turns.

Both boys know the truth about Santa. But did they know the truth about this Santa? Matthew gave me the once-over from the front and side. Adam stared closely at my eyes from two feet away.

Over in the corner, meantime, Julia was tugging at her mom’s coat. “That sounds like you-know-who,” she told Ann Bradley. Like whom? asked mom. “Like Uncle Bob,” she whispered.

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But when it came time to leave, all four kids waved. “Goodby, Santa!” Julia called out.

Later, when Ann Bradley decided to let her two boys in on the Santa secret, they were shocked.

As for Rachel, her mother reported that her daughter was “100% sold” on my version of St. Nick. “Rachel’s convinced you’re the real Santa because you got her letter,” Joanna Pringle said.

Mrs. Claus was relieved to hear that.

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No one wants to be married to the Grinch who stole Christmas.


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