It seems to me that the quality of shopping mall Santas has declined dramatically in recent years, and that the industry as a whole should take a good long look at itself and ask: "Is this what the Great Man is all about?"
Wander past the Hickory Farms store and The Gap and into any "Santa's Workshop" and you're liable to see a succession of thin, pallid, edgy Santas that seem pulled from a William Burroughs novel.
Think Santa as played by Harvey Keitel and you have some idea of what we're dealing with here.
At a mall in suburban Washington the other day, I watched a brooding Santa with this glazed, just-out-of-Betty-Ford look in his eyes interact awkwardly with a long line of excited children.
One little girl, lively and friendly, asked Santa if he would please bring her a Fisher-Price kitchen set, a basketball and a Sally Secrets doll for Christmas.
Santa seemed strangely distracted and did not reply for several seconds.
Finally, he sighed and said: "Tell me, do any of us ever really get what we want?"
I don't know . . . it seemed to me Santa was getting a little too deep for this particular setting.
It also begs the question: Where are they getting these guys from?
And can't these men undergo a few hours of sensitivity training before slipping into those smart-looking red costumes with the fur trim and fake beards?
As it happens, I was a shopping mall Santa many years ago, while in my early twenties. It seemed like a harmless enough gig. The pay was three bucks an hour. Mel, supervisor of Santas and a small, nervous man who chain-smoked Chesterfields during my job interview, professed to be "very concerned about upholding the image of Santa."
I soon learned that one of our previous Santas had been caught drinking on the job after delivering a wild, rambling screed to a 3-year-old in which he repeatedly referred to the Barbie doll she wanted as "that little tramp."
In any event, I lasted about a week before the inevitable "Santa burnout" began to take its toll.
The final straw was a Saturday afternoon when a blond-haired little boy approached with his mother, a woman with an impressive helmet of hair who announced that her name was Natalie.
"Santa, Christopher doesn't want any toys for Christmas!" Natalie chirped.
This, of course, signaled a deeply disturbed boy and served as prima facie evidence that the two might belong to some sort of cult or survivalist movement.
Sure enough, the brat climbed on my lap and said: "All I want is, um, is . . ."
"Peace on Earth!" his mother whispered.
" . . . peace on Earth and . . ."
"Good will toward men!" she whispered.
" . . . good will toward men!" Chris said.
Then the two of them looked at me with these big, goofy smiles, as if expecting Santa to be overwhelmed with such selflessness.
Well. I kept telling myself "Steady now . . . deep breath, deep breath." But the truth is, it was all I could do not to whack the kid right there.
And I would have, too, except Natalie looked like the type who'd run straight to a cop and cause a big scene.
So all I did was hand Christopher a lollipop and mumble something about passing along his wishes to the NATO nations as well as the members of the Warsaw Pact.
When my shift was over, I went straight to Mel and told him I wanted out of the Santa game, pronto.
Mel feigned astonishment, as if I were stepping down as CEO of General Motors or some great job like that.
Nevertheless, in my short time as a member of the fraternity, I learned these truths about being a good Santa:
* Above all else, be enthusiastic. Too many of today's Santas act as if they're breaking rocks in the hot sun. If all you bring to the proceedings is a sullen attitude and a jaundiced view toward life, it's best to go into another line of work.
Perhaps (I'm just thinking out loud here) being a newspaper columnist would be more up your alley.
* Santa can be an intimidating presence to small children. Therefore, I would take it easy with the deep-voiced ho-ho-hos. A child of 3 sees a big, hairy, wild-eyed man in a funny get-up with a scary laugh and thinks: John Wayne Gacy.
* Never, ever, promise the little monsters anything. As with everything else in life, it is best to remain vague and non-committal. Assure a kid that he'll receive that $130 Super Nintendo unit for Christmas and his mom will hate you. His dad will be looking for you in the parking lot as soon as the mall closes.
You don't need that aggravation.