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SOME KIDS find their first face-to-face encounter with "jolly old Saint Nicholas" to be less jovial than anticipated.

For those whose tearful sobs kept them from reciting their wish lists to Santa in person, or those who wish to add last-minute requests, there's a toll-free telephone number to dial -- (800) 442-XMAS -- from the more comforting surroundings of home.

For the 10th year, residents in Hillhaven Corp. nursing and retirement homes are playing Santa and Mrs. Claus on the "Ho Ho Hotline," a free national phone-in program designed to help keep residents active during the holiday season.

The volunteer Santas and Mrs. Clauses, many of whom are well over 80 years old, love to share in the holiday excitement and magic with the children, says Chris Marker, president of Hillhaven, which is headquartered in Tacoma, Wash., and operates convalescent and retirement centers across the nation.

About 1,500 residents in more than 250 centers are answering the hot line, which is in operation from 1 to 5 p.m. through Dec. 24.

Volunteers prepare for the hot line by attending "Ho Ho Academy" training sessions at participating Hillhaven centers, during which they rehearse answers to commonly asked questions, become familiar with the season's most popular toys and take a refresher course in Santa lore.

Four years ago, Hillhaven added a "Ho Ho Thank You Line" to enable children to call and thank Santa and Mrs. Claus for their gifts.

That national line, also (800) 442-XMAS, is in operation between 1 and 5 p.m. on Dec. 26 and 27.

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