- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Symbol of hope inspires

President Bush’s approval rating is low, gas prices are high, scandal and mistrust of authority figures are on the rise, but there is one thing Americans still believe in — Santa Claus.

Especially now that Forbes magazine just named Santa Claus (age: 1,651) the richest “fictional” philanthropist in the world.

“You’re never too old for Santa,” said 20-year-old Kelly Carnes, a student at George Washington University who was standing in line at the Pentagon City mall Sunday afternoon, waiting to see her red-suited idol.

Doubters and cynics are few, even among those who may accuse Santa Claus of elf exploitation. Forbes noted that “the tubby toy titan,” speculated to be tormented “by infinite wealth,” embarks on an annual around-the-globe trip to give stuff away.

And everyone has a wish list. For boys this year, it’s the Xbox 360. For girls, Barbie.

For single women?

“Men, jewelry and world peace,” said Jennifer Harris, 20, standing in line at the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City on Sunday afternoon waiting to sit on Santa’s lap.

In shopping malls across the country, the scene is the same — children with jittery knees, stroller moms, sassy teenagers and teetering toddlers peer over a red velvet rope to see of the jolly man with the snowy white beard who sits on an armchair, earning perhaps $10 an hour.

And in the case of the rotund, pink-cheeked Santa at Alexandria’s Landmark Mall, the silvery beard is genuine. Do the children try to pull it?

“Oh yeah,” he chuckled. “To make sure it’s real.”

Sipping bottled water, he gave his age as “about 300.”

“I think Santa Claus means hope to the kids,” he said. When they ask for certain gifts, he tells them, “I’ll see what we have and we’ll try to get part of it and maybe throw in a surprise.”

Are children more greedy today?

“I don’t think so,” Santa said. “I had two or three kids today say they didn’t want anything, because they had everything they needed and that I should give toys to the poor children and the children of Katrina. I thought that was pretty nice.”

Santa Claus, a mythical figure in what has become an increasingly commercial holiday, has become an international symbol of hope.

“You can see Christmas trees everywhere now, and we have Santa,” said Adrar Jeraq, 23, from Kuwait. She was at Pentagon City with her husband and 7-month-old daughter Sshad, who had her picture taken with Santa. “Santa is someone who likes to give gifts to children.”

“Say cheese,” the photographer operating the digital camera tells children.

It started out in department stores in the 1950s with grainy black-and-white photos that had to be mailed to the recipient. Then came Polaroids. Now, with digital cameras, Santa’s picture with the children also comes on a CD for easy e-mailing.

“I wanted to do it last year, then we never got the chance,” said 28-year-old George Boosalis, who works in the human resource department for Booz Allen Hamilton.

Saturday, he was at the Landmark Mall, where he paid $20 for the photo. “I thought it would be fun. It’s always good to believe.”

His girlfriend, Chrissy Anamisis, asked Santa for “a trip.”

“Hi Santa!” a little boy in boots called, walking by the velvet rope.

Next in line were four girls from Episcopal High School in Alexandria, who had a group shot with Santa burned on a CD.

And what did they ask Santa to bring them?

“Cell phones,” they answered in unison.

The Episcopal freshmen supported a widely held holiday theory: You get more gifts when you still believe in Santa.

“It’s not as fun anymore, when [parents] know you don’t believe,” said Jeannie Glodell, 14, from Alexandria. “They know it’s not as important, and you don’t get as many presents.”

Psychologically, “Santa Claus represents hope and appeals to the most helpless and naive,” said clinical psychologist Pauline Wallin. “Children at about 6 start to think logically and question things.”

Like why the wrapping paper on the toy is the same as the one in the hall closet. The fact that the house doesn’t have a chimney. “But they still want to believe.”

Mrs. Wallin, author of “Taming Your Inner Brat,” says there is often a pact of silence when it comes to Santa Claus.

“Kids let their parents think they still do believe, even if they don’t. Children don’t want to disappoint their parents, and the parents don’t want to disappoint the kids.”

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