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Santa still the man of the season Youngsters line up for their chance to chat with beloved embodiment of Christmas spirit

The little boy was wide-eyed and grinning, now that his turn had come to approach the man in the Santa suit.

"Where's your sleigh?" the boy asked suspiciously.

"On the roof," the Santa Claus said, without missing a beat. "Sometimes you can see the reindeer looking over the edge."

If you think you've had a long, busy holiday season, try donning a Santa suit at a mall for a month or so.

"Five and a half hours I put in last Saturday," said Michael Stroh, a Santa in Walden Galleria in Cheektowaga. "I sat down in the chair at 4 and didn't get up again until 8. It was nonstop kids."

With Christmas on Sunday, the rush to sit on Santa's lap kicked into high gear this week, and spotting 30 or more anxious youngsters waiting in line at one time was nothing unusual.

For Santa, all this takes some patience, a little creativity and a bit of finesse to match wits with thousands of kids professing their good behavior and reeling off their Christmas lists.

"The little boys are asking for Thomas the Train sets. Little girls are more interested in Dora than Barbie," said David Mosher, who has the early afternoon Santa shift in McKinley Mall in the Town of Hamburg. "I've only had two or three boys ask for army or war stuff, which I think is a good sign."

"I've had them ask for iPods, computers, Xbox 360s. A couple wanted TVs," Stroh recalled. "You think, 'I hope your parents got some money.' "

Rule No. 1 when playing Santa is never, ever, promise anything.

"When they ask for something, I don't tell them I will get it," Mosher said. "I say, 'I'll try. I'll see what I have. I'll try.' "

The time that one boy asked for a real machine gun was different.

"I told him no," Mosher said.

Most malls contract with private photo companies to screen and hire several people to play Santa at anywhere from $12 to $14 an hour. Children can grab a few minutes with Santa for free, while their parents can pay -- starting at $10.99 -- for a photo capturing the moment.

Stroh, 48, a furniture repairman from West Seneca, answered an ad this year, while Mosher, 65, a retired teacher and social worker from Evans, started as Santa in McKinley Mall last year.

They've embraced the part. Both are convincing Santas, with their naturally white hair and beards, which they grew longer for the season. And both have fun with the role, often staying true to character even when not in the suit.

Stroh was wearing a red shirt and suspenders while repairing a sofa in a home recently. When the kids in the house saw him, they quickly picked up
all their toys.

"They never cleaned up this good ever," the mother told Stroh. "Can you come back?"

The kids make the job rewarding, and difficult.

"It's not so much the misbehaved children that make it tough, but the ones who will tug at your heart," Stroh said.

A disabled child, hoisted onto Santa's lap by a parent, or children unlikely to get much, if anything, for Christmas, can be emotionally difficult.

"I had one little girl who asked for her mother to be healthy. She has cancer," Stroh said. "It's tough. All you say is, 'Santa will see what he can do.' "

Ultimately, though, the two most enjoy bringing smiles to the faces of youngsters, or getting a wave and hello from the adults.

"It's a great feeling to have," Stroh said, "when you give that little bit of Christmas spirit."

People need it, Mosher said.

"By the way," Mosher noted as he headed onto the Santa set, "my middle initial happens to be 'S.' "

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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