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The inside scoop on a jolly old elf

In an exclusive interview, Santa Claus reveals, among other things, how reindeer fly.

By Times staff writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 24, 2000

NORTH POLE -- Wonder of wonders! Tonight is that magical night when reindeer fly, a tiny sleigh holds an unlimited number of toys, and a jolly old elf makes dreams come true for millions of children around the world through a quantum leap of faith.

Amid those hectic last minutes prior to takeoff, Santa Claus agreed to talk with Citrus Times staff writer Mary Ann Koslasky and answer a few questions. His responses should satisfy even the most jaded of minds.

Question: When Thomas Nast painted a portrait of you in 1870, it was based on the poem A Visit From St. Nicholas by Clement C. Moore, and St. Nicholas was portrayed as a rather rotund gentleman. Were these men accurate in their description at the time?

Answer: Well, actually, my understanding is Clement Moore used a Dutchman that worked at his parents' house as a handyman as a model for St. Nicholas. This man was apparently quite jolly and quite rotund . . . so that was where he got his characterization.

Q: I know this is an impolite question, but based on the fact that you've been around at least since the early 1800s, how old are you?

A: That's a good question. I'm as old as a child's memory!

Q: Perhaps the biggest question everyone wants to know is: How can you make it around the entire world in one night and deliver toys to all those children?

A: Well, there's something you need to understand. As I travel around the world, I go from country to country and time zone to time zone, and that way you actually end up with about 24 hours.

Q: The reindeer look rather awkward. What makes them fly?

A: I don't really know. We take them up for practice runs to keep them in shape, but we don't take them to Nanook's feed store anymore since I crash-landed in the parking lot and the runners got all twisted up. But, I think it has something to do with magic -- like the magic dust I use that only works on Christmas Eve or like Santa's magic key. I sprinkle magic dust on the key and it unlocks any door. I use that where there are no chimneys.

Q: How do you get around with your sleigh in places like Florida where there is no snow?

A: It is tough sometimes, especially when you get on that sand. But there are some things that people want to know that I can't reveal. I am glad there's no snow on the Florida roofs because they're kind of steep, and I wouldn't want to slide off.

Q: You have several names: Santa Claus in the United States; Father Christmas in England; and Shengdan Laoren in China. Do you ever have an identity crisis?

A: Well, of course, sometimes I get confused! What I'm called depends on what country I'm in. I had a funny experience two years ago when I was appearing at a store in the Crystal River Mall. A young boy came up to me, stuck his hand out and said, "My name is Jimmy Jones. What's your name?" I explained that "in France I'm known as Pere Noel, in England as Father Christmas, but we're in the good old U.S.A., aren't we?" And he promptly answered, "Nope. We're in Sears."

Q: In this day of computers and e-commerce, have you gotten connected, or do you still rely on elves as your main labor force?

A: Well, the elves are the ones who do everything in reality. And Mrs. Claus and the girl elves coordinate hair colors, outfits and all those things for the dolls. But honestly, the operation has gotten so big, it is like a corporation. And while I don't cotton to them too much, we have to use computers to keep track of things.

Q: Do you find that using computers frees up more time for you to relax or do other things, like playing golf?

A: I've never really gotten into golf, although I probably should. It would be good exercise. No. My thing is putting those toys together, getting wood shavings all over the floor, getting some paint on me, getting sawdust in my beard, making sure all the screws and bolts are secure. I'll let you in on a secret . . . the rocking horses and the trains are my favorites.

Q: Do you find that children want more high-tech toys now?

A: Teddy bears and dolls are still popular. It's kind of a standing rule with Santa that if a child starts asking for all kinds of high-tech things like Sega Genesis and CD players, I stop them and ask them what do you suppose Santa and the elves are making in the toy shop? We only make toys. If they have a toy request, they can send me an e-mail or letter, and if they behave I'll bring them something. As of last night I had 568-bajillion and 2 requests. Scooters are a big thing this year. I tell all of those children that they have to have safety equipment . . . knee pads, elbow pads, helmet and a big pillow for their behind.

Q: What are the biggest changes in the holiday that you have witnessed over the years?

A: Oh boy! There's so many changes. I think we're losing the feeling of the true meaning of Christmas, which obviously is the Christ child. People are substituting material things, although I've noticed recently that I've had several children say they wanted peace and good will in the world.

Q: What was the most unusual request you ever had?

A: The ones who tug at your heart the most are the one's where mom or dad has left or dad is a truck driver in California and they would like them home for Christmas. Last year I was on television and a little girl called and said her dad was in Bosnia and asked, "Can you bring him home?" I had to tell her that, "I only do toys, but we'll both say a prayer and maybe he'll come home." A couple of days later a woman who knows the family told me that about an hour after the child's call, her dad called and said he would be home for Christmas, and the girl was dancing around the house saying "Santa did it! Santa did it!"

Q: Why do adults stop believing in Santa?

A: You know I've pondered that. The only thing I can say is that somewhere along the way we lose that magical imagination, and I don't know when. There's a great story about that called the Polar Express.

Q: I know you're in a hurry, but do you have anything else you would like to add?

A: Well, Ho, Ho, Ho, Merry Christmas! Santa Claus is coming to town!

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