- The Washington Times - Monday, November 30, 2009

Dennis Dickerson is a master of interpreting the head nod.

After nine years as a professional Santa, Mr. Dickerson knows the delicate dance that starts with a child on his knee reciting a long Christmas wish list and anxious parents standing nearby, shaking their heads “yes” if that present is possible and twisting them “no” if it is financially out of reach.

During recent Christmas seasons, some good St. Nicks - working long hours at malls, corporate gatherings or charity parties - are having to lower youngsters’ expectations significantly as recession woes have impacted family holiday spending.

“Basically you cover yourself or cover the parents by saying that you’ll have the elves do the best they can in these difficult times,” said Mr. Dickerson, 66, of Woodbridge, Va. “You have to generate this fantasy and project that for the children and at the same time you do not promise items. You don’t commit Santa to deliver these wishes.”

Many top items that were once a given may be out of reach for many families this year as the nation marks its second Christmas under a deeply contracted economy.

As some cities cut costs by dimming light displays or cutting back on Christmas trees and decorations to save money, Santa remains big business, even if his sleigh is a little lighter, said Tim Connaghan, a national leader in the Santa trade from Riverside, Calif., who travels the nation teaching would-be Kris Kringles the rules that go along with the furry hat and boots.

Mr. Connaghan, 61, who has taught more than 1,600 Santas and aspiring Mrs. Clauses at his International University of Santa Claus, a traveling seminar-school of sorts, said his classes (offering the master of santa clausology degree) now include full training about dealing with children whose parents may be struggling in the economic downturn. They discuss ways for Santas to responded to tough questions children may ask, fearing that money is tight even as they hope for the latest and greatest gadgets that many see advertised on television.

Mr. Connaghan, in his 40th year of playing Kriss Kringle, is a star Santa of sorts, appearing in the Hollywood Christmas parade and on several television shows. He began his Santa work with his fellow soldiers in Vietnam and continued for friends, later turning it into a full-time profession and authoring a book, “Behind the Red Suit: The Business of Santa.”

Even as unemployment remains high and job cuts continue, the demand for Santa this season, he said, remains brisk.

“I have not heard of any major malls closing where Santa is out of work. That is good news,” he said. “More places are adding Santa. Some, like Bass Pro Shops, have a Santa in all their locations and they offer free photos as a way to generate traffic in their stores.”

He said parents who are struggling should try to put some type of present under the tree, even if it’s something useful like coloring books or clothing. Those who can’t afford even that should connect with charities who often have free toys and other small gifts that help parents come Christmas morning - even if it is a toy car or a small plush stuffed animal.

His script for tough times:

“If a child does bring something up, if he says, ‘My mom says you aren’t going to leave something this year,’ Santa can say: ‘Santa tries to get to every child’s home for Christmas. I’ll try to make sure to leave you a little surprise, no matter what, even if it’s small.’ ”

He adds a way of comforting small anxieties over money woes. “I tell them: ‘It’s going to get better. In the meantime, I’m still going to come to your house.’ ”

This year, Mr. Connaghan will make 140 appearances as Santa, from big parties thrown by Tinseltown producers to hospital visits to bring cheer to young patients. He said he will let children know that the season is not all about having the most expensive electronics or pricey gifts.

“I tell them the season is not always about getting but about giving, that this is a time to be giving love,” Mr. Connaghan said. “Children don’t always see it like that. They still want to hear that there is something under the tree or in their stocking. … And I think parents can always get something if they take the initiative, connecting with churches or other programs in their community. It may not be the Gameboy or PlayStation 3, but they can always find something.”

Mr. Dickerson, who has an agent and works mainly corporate parties, notes that nine out of 10 children he will see this year as Santa “are going to still get a fabulous Christmas.”

Children in families with limited means, he said, “are accustomed to it. They know their family is struggling so they take that unbelievably well.

“The fact that they didn’t get a $500 to $1,000 gift doesn’t destroy them.”

If he has enough time, he tries to do some “guiding” - just to keep the heart of Christmas in perspective for a generation used to plenty. Although his visits with children are short, he tries to emphasize that the season is about something more.

“I like to focus on the low-cost, no-cost goals of Christmas,” he said.

“Today, I donated blood. It didn’t cost me anything, but it was a gift - giving someone the gift of life. As a grandparent, we love to get homemade gifts from our grandchildren. Those things mean the most to us. … If you talk to kids, it’s amazing how smooth they are at picking these things up.”

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