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What Santa sees: The jolly old elf brings joy to all, from impish seniors to dubious 2-year-olds

Spend a few hours in mid-December with Santa and watch the Christmas magic happen.

A burly guy calls out, “You’re doing a great job, Santa, you’re doing a great job!”

A fast-moving blond woman with a phone in one hand and a Starbucks cup in the other doesn’t break stride but glances at Santa and wiggles her fingers coyly.

A curly haired tyke peers down from between the bars of the second-floor railing, eyes and mouth wide.

Two gray-haired women, decked out in Christmas sweatshirts, perch on Santa’s knees for their annual photo.

A 14-year-old boy, wearing a “Call of Duty: Black Ops” T-shirt, smiles for a photo with his 9-month-old sister and Santa.

And the grandfather of a 2-year-old unhesitatingly takes a seat on Santa’s lap to hold his cherished granddaughter for a photo.

Santa Mike, whose blue eyes twinkle behind small glasses and whose full, white beard is soft and flowing, plays the part of the jolly old elf perfectly, responding to each greeting with a wave of his white-gloved hand and a resonant “Merry Christmas!” After many years of being St. Nick, he knows much more than who’s naughty and who’s nice. Equipped only with his natural charm, a bag of stickers and trinkets and the ability to finesse such questions as “Are you the real Santa?” and “Where are your reindeer?” he works hard to coax smiles out of everyone who visits him, including skeptical 2-year-olds and screaming infants.

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PHOTO GALLERY: A day in the life of Santa Claus

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Santa, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Mike Stroh of West Seneca, perches in the middle of an oversized bench flanked by Christmas decor. There is room on each side for a child to sit or an adult to squeeze in, but he gestures to his velvet-clad knees, saying, “It makes the best photo.”

With Santa on this morning are two helpers, Becca Scamacca and Paul LaRusch, festively attired in red shirts, black pants and bright holiday ties. A visit to whisper wishes in Santa’s ear is free and every child leaves with a reindeer antler paper hat, but photos are allowed only if a photo package, starting at $19.98, is purchased. A quality printer and an array of add-ons, from photo snow globes to photo ornaments to special frames, enable parents to leave with the perfect personalized gift.

“We get asked all the time if we are elves,” said Scamacca. “We say no, we are helpers; the elves are at the North Pole making toys.”

Santa Mike wears tall, shiny black boots, red pants and a brocade vest under a Victorian-style rich velvet robe with bright white faux fur trim. It’s his fourth year in the Santa set in the Walden Galleria, but, he said, “I am Santa 365 days a year.” Even in July there are hints of his real identity – a belt buckle that says “Santa” and, of course, his kindly face and flowing beard. “I usually wear a red shirt, but even when I’m in a green shirt, people recognize me as Santa,” he said.

What is the key? “To be a good Santa, you’ve got to care for the kids. For me, it’s all about the kids, to see the looks on their faces as they come running up.”

Cooper Harzewski, age 2ø, came running up – and then stopped short, suddenly shy at the sight of the man he’s been talking about for weeks with his parents, Brian and Kerianne Harzewski of the Elmwood Village. Cooper stood several feet from Santa, a finger in his mouth, resisting the offers of first a sticker and then a chance to ring a strap of shining sleigh bells. Cooper inched close enough to sit on Santa’s lap, but his smiles were hesitant and his finger remained in his mouth. Finally, when Kerianne reminded him of the “Ho ho ho!” gesture they had practiced, Cooper relaxed, said, “Ho, ho, ho!” smiled and flung his arms wide. Scamacca snapped the charming photo.

“Sometimes it takes a while,” said Santa Mike. Parents with babies and toddlers who might need extra time often visit Santa on weekday mornings and during dinner time, when fewer people line up. But even during busy times, if a child in line starts to fuss, other parents are usually understanding and will allow the helpers to move that child up. Otherwise, one wailing youngster can cause a tsunami of tears to hit the line. “It’s like a domino effect,” said Scamacca.

“Sometimes they come and just carry the kids by me, and they may do that a few times, so then when they finally do come for the photo, the child is used to me,” said Santa Mike.

Santa tenderly cradled newborn Benjamin Schiske, the blizzard baby of Sarah and Nick Schiske of Depew. Born Nov. 21 as almost 5 feet of snow piled up at their house, Benjamin, whose elfin face already shows his father’s dimples and chin cleft, came dressed in a tiny Santa suit, cap pulled low over his dark hair. He was sleepy but opened his eyes for his first Santa photo.

Also sleepy, and unhappy with being awakened was Keelyn Davidson, 9 months. Her brother, Declan, happily climbed on Santa’s lap and smiled for the camera, but Keelyn, wearing a bright striped outfit, was in no mood for this. Mom Carrie Davidson’s removal of her pacifier was the last straw and Keelyn wailed. With the binky returned and her brow knitted with annoyance, Keelyn’s first Santa photo was precious anyway.

Among the “big kids” hopping onto Santa’s lap for photos were Marci Jeanneret and Janet Kaine, friends from Niagara Falls, Ont. “We do this every year,” said Jeanneret. Kaine added, laughing, “We send it to our grown kids to embarrass them!”

It took more than a blanket to get Kyla Booker of Buffalo, who will be 3 in January, to trust the jolly old elf. It took her grandfather, Leslie May, to sit on Santa’s lap and hold the child, who was decked out in purple from head to toe. “We kind of figured it,” said Kyla’s grandmother, Karen May. “We knew he was going to have to sit on Santa’s lap.”

But the best sport of the day may have been Skylar Myers, 14, of Depew, whose days on Santa’s lap would have been long over if not for his love for his little sister, Leah Myers, 9 months. The slender teen sat on Santa’s lap and flashed a smile for the photo. “He adores his sister,” said his mother, Tammy Myers.

At the end of his scheduled time on the Santa set and with no children waiting, Santa Mike slipped away “to feed the reindeer.” Accompanied by a helper, he made his way to the escalator, stopping to high-five a little one in a stroller. But even in the back room, as he hung up his robe and cap, the aura of Santa remained.

“The more you put into it, the more you get out of it, the more you make it believable for the kids,” said Santa Mike, who is careful not to claim he is the only real Santa, but has been known to show skeptics photos of himself with his reindeer and a Santa driver’s license with his own photo on it.

In fact, in the parking lot, as Santa Mike started his red car with the “Mr. Santa” license plates and the antlers, if you listened closely, you might have heard him exclaim ’ere he drove out of sight, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

email: aneville@buffnews.com