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A MODERN Christmas tale.

Patrick and Kathy Kelly of Williamsville were taking their two boys -- Patrick, 5, and Danny, 3 -- into Buffalo for the Festival of Trees. They told the kids they'd see Santa once they got downtown.

They saw Santa all right -- on just about every street corner they passed.

"Patrick kept saying, 'How can he be downtown when we just saw him back there?' " said Mrs. Kelly.

Latest victim of cultural overexposure: Jolly old St. Nick.

Parents are reduced to selling the idea of "stand-in" Santas to their kids, or claiming the portly old gent moves pretty quickly.

"The past few years, I remember seeing more of them," said Mrs. Kelly. "But this year it seems like they're everywhere.

"When I was a kid, we'd come downtown and see Santa, and that was the only Santa I'd see. I remember how special it was, how I'd be in awe of him. My kids see him so often, they don't get so excited. It's almost like, 'There's Santa, so what?' "

It's not just the quantity of Santas, it's the lack of quality. There are skinny Santas, Santas wearing dark glasses, Santas who forget their "ho ho's" and talk to kids matter-of-factly. There goes the illusion.

Kids lose their innocence soon enough these days. Maybe most of these Santas should turn themselves into elves next year. At least it will be easier to explain.

Speaking of holiday excess, isn't there some state or local ordinance to prevent the appearance of Christmas decorations until after Thanksgiving? And if not, will some official please propose one?

This year, there was a drug store chain and at least one mall that had the lights and wreaths up at least a week before the turkey was in the oven.

We understand that times are hard and merchants want to extend the peak season. But Christmas is still almost two weeks away and more than a few folks are ready to wring out the season.

As far as I'm concerned, the best thing about the Buffalo Bills isn't that they're waxing everybody in sight. It's that the discriminating fan can enjoy their success again.

Last year and the early part of this season, who -- other than diehard fans (and there admittedly are about a million of them) -- wanted to root for these guys? Selfish, egotistical, bitching and moaning. Give us a break.

It got so bad that, by the early part of this season, the thinking man's fan couldn't help but wish the homeboys would get knocked on their collective butts. (Of course, there are rabid individuals who will root for whoever the home squad puts in uniform, be they ministers or ax murderers, but that's a different story.)

Bruce Smith gets more humble and well-spoken with every game. Jim Kelly has either matured or wised up enough to edit his more egotistical pronouncements. Overall, the players seem to enjoy each other's company. Instead of selfish egomaniacs one would wish outta town, it's a squad worth investing an interest in.

Maybe victory cures all ills. Maybe they'll revert to nauseating form if the road turns rough. But, for the moment, we'll enjoy the reformation.

According to a recent news item, police have "narrowed" the list of suspects in the Linda Yalem rape/murder, and related cases, to 63.

One doesn't know what's more frightening -- that the investigation is going slowly or there are at least 63 men in the area police feel are capable of doing something like this.

S & L Scandal Footnote: Charles Keating, he of the infamous Lincoln Savings, is a moral zealot who used to lecture girls at high school assemblies in Cincinnati on the sinfulness of wearing shorts -- even Bermudas!

Happily, the government finally got around to charging Keating with a transgression that's truly obscene -- blowing people's money and sticking taxpayers with a billion-dollar bill. Among the depositors in the failed Lincoln Savings, ironically, was the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, which was in for more than $500,000.

More baseball and Buffalo: Mediocre players are getting million-dollar contracts and the owners had their most profitable season last year. But the fatted calf, TV revenue, may turn into the Trojan horse.

CBS wants a rebate or a restructuring of its deal with the major leagues, and ESPN lost a ton of money in its first year of baseball broadcasting. With the networks unhappy and fans' disposable income drying up, this may be the riskiest of times to jump in the the major league pool.

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