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A Novice St. Nick : Holidays: Though it’s his first time in the Santa seat, Dennis Willingham is a natural. He even knows sign language.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most of the children didn’t want to sit on Santa Claus’ lap. At least not at first.

Mom was right there, encouraging as always, grinning ear to ear, while they sat there shaking in their little tennis shoes.

But then there was Santa. At 6 feet, 2 inches and 280 pounds, he was swathed in a red velvet jumpsuit and black boots, with wild white hair swallowing all but his big brown eyes. His fuzzy dark eyebrows were covered with white stuff.

If they could get close enough to Santa to let him touch them, some made it through. Others crawled back into Mom’s arms, and the family continued their holiday shopping at Oxnard’s Esplanade shopping center.

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To break the ice, Santa--in this case 30-year-old Dennis Willingham of Camarillo--would ask the children if they wanted a Santa stamp, which left the imprint “You’re very, very special.”

One little girl just wanted to stay with Daddy. “No offense, she doesn’t like anyone with a beard,” her mother said.

Justin Wright of Carpinteria didn’t seem to mind the experience at all.

“Want to sit on Santa’s lap?” asked Willingham, who said he wears his own natural pillow under his wide, black belt.

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Justin, who will turn 3 on Dec. 26, sat down. No problem.

“Want to tell Santa what you want?” Santa asked.

Silence.

Justin’s grandmother suggested wooden toys.

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“I want some wooden toys,” Justin said quietly.

“Ask me what Santa wants,” Santa said, pausing. “A hug.”

Justin gave Santa one of those. That was easy.

“Are you going to leave me out some cookies? Just this much milk, OK?” he said, measuring a couple inches with his fingers. He leaned over to Justin and whispered, “ ‘Cause milk makes me have to go to the bathroom.”

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This is Willingham’s first bout as Santa Claus, but he seems to be a natural.

“All day I’m humming Christmas songs. It keeps you in the spirit, I guess,” said Willingham, who also works at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Having a 3-year-old with Down’s syndrome has spurred him to learn sign language because that is the only way she can communicate. That has helped him talk with deaf children as Santa, Willingham said.

Sometimes, Willingham gets a nice surprise. Last week, he said, a woman who will turn 101 on Christmas sat on his lap and posed for a picture with him.

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When he asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she told him she “would like to have world peace and everyone to have a merry Christmas.”

Willingham has learned a few things being Santa’s stand-in. For instance, girls want Barbie or Little Mermaid dolls and boys want electronic games such as Nintendo.

Whether the children know about the recession is unclear, but most are asking for just one thing each.

One other conclusion: “Parents are pushy,” he said. “Some parents just drop the kid. They’re screaming bloody murder. . . . They’re just traumatizing them.”

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Still, he is enjoying the role. The elastic headband can be more tiring than the kids, “but it’s worth it,” he said. “It’s all worth it.”


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