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Extra12/16/2009 12:25 PM ET

Please, Santa, get Dad his job back

For America's Santas, it's hard to be jolly when kids are asking for bare essentials -- shoes, a library card, a place to live.

By The Wall Street Journal

As a longtime Santa Claus at a suburban Chicago mall, Rod Riemersma used to jokingly tell children they would get socks for Christmas if they were naughty.

This year, he stopped telling the joke. Too many children are asking for socks.

"They've probably heard their parents say, 'Geez, I wish I had some money to get them clothes,'" says the 56-year-old Riemersma.

A wintry measure of hard times can be found this holiday season on the knees of white-bearded, red-suited men around the country. A couple of years ago, children were shooting for the moon, asking St. Nick for Xboxes, iPods and laptops. But with the economy still fragile, many children are requesting basics such as shoes, library cards and even eyeglasses, say dozens of Santas who work at malls or on the party circuit.

"Kids will hear the E-word, but it's not Elmo," says Tim Connaghan, who runs a Los Angeles Santa-training school. "It's the economy."

The extent to which money woes are weighing on children is clear from the letters flooding into North Pole, Alaska. That's the home of the Santa Claus House, a Christmas-themed shop where parents can order letters from Santa with a North Pole postmark. It gets tens of thousands of letters to Santa every year. Operations manager Paul Brown says the messages not only predict the holiday's hottest toys months in advance but also gauge the mood of the nation.

"When we had the housing crunch, we saw 'Please help us stay in our house,'" Brown says of the letters, which are forwarded to a nonprofit that works with charities in the children's hometowns. "This year, it's more job-related."

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The Kriss Kringles of America are doing their best to help children cope. Anticipating a deluge of recession-related questions, Connaghan in November sent advice to his e-mail network of 1,800 Santas.

The tips included telling worried children that "things will get better" and asking if Santa could "bring a surprise," instead of promising specific gifts. The job of a Santa "is to make the child feel better," he counseled. He suggested that Santas refer children to local charities to find Christmas gifts.

That's what Jim Lewis did. A Santa at a Bass Pro Shop outdoor-goods store in Denver, he blanched when a blond girl in a red plaid dress recently asked for a pair of eyeglasses so she could see the classroom board. He recovered in time to motion over one of his elves, who told the girl's mother about the local Lions Club, which helps provide needy children with prescription glasses.

"It would be wonderful if we could grant more wishes like that, but unfortunately, this is the exception to the rule," says the 60-year-old Lewis, a real-estate appraiser when he takes off the Santa suit.

Sometimes even the best training can't keep Santa from being caught off guard. Mike Smith, who works as Santa at the Polaris Fashion Place in Columbus, Ohio, says a 5-year-old girl wearing a Dora the Explorer sweat shirt last month hopped in his lap and asked, "Can you turn my daddy into an elf?" "Why?" he asked.

"Because my daddy's out of work, and we're about to lose our house," she said.

The girl's mother, standing by her little brother's stroller, burst into tears. A stunned Smith asked the girl if her father was good with a hammer, and the girl said yes. "I didn't know what to say after that, so we just took the picture," he says with regret.

Santa as economic indicator

Santas aren't precise economic indicators, of course. Government data out Dec. 11 showed that retail sales inched up in November from October. And not every Kringle is reporting a difference in what children are requesting this year. Many of the 40-some Santas interviewed for this article say they work with affluent children whose requests are as bold as ever.

Kelly Crais, who plays Santa in the New Orleans area, says the children he sees at some parties still ask for a PlayStation 3, which starts at $299, and other wallet-busting gifts. But the children he sees for free at his local Harrah's Hotel & Casino have downgraded their lists from previous years. One 7-year-old boy recently asked for shoes. "Do you want Air Jordans?" Crais asked.

The boy responded, "No, school shoes. My shoes have holes in them."

Crais, a 67-year-old retired commercial artist, called over his photographer, who told the boy's mother about local charities.

Some older children say they have scaled back their gift requests. Christian Portillo, a 17-year-old community-college student in San Francisco, recently went to a mall to visit Santa for some family photos. He says he typically would have asked for Xbox 360 video games for Christmas. But his father, Cesar, an information-technology staff member at the cash-strapped University of California at Berkeley, had his salary slashed about 10% this year.

So, the younger Portillo says, "Now all I want is a bike rack." His parents got one for him on Craigslist, where they say they are scrounging for secondhand gifts this year.

Even some parents are sharing their worries with Santa. Loren Smith, a 56-year-old talent agent who works as Santa at Sea World in San Diego, says he often leans over to mothers and says, "You haven't talked to Santa for a good long time. What do you want for Christmas?"

"I'd just like to get my job back," responded one woman last week. The woman said she lost her airline management job, and the two talked about the economy for a few minutes. "I stepped out of character," Smith says. "I don't do that very often."

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Yet even this year, there are still jolly moments. One occurred for Riemersma in suburban Chicago recently, when some children brought their 88-year-old grandmother to see him.

"Oh, no, I haven't sat on a man's lap in years," the woman said, before she reluctantly climbed on. But after a moment, she grinned at him and said, "But guess what, Santa. I still like it."

This article was reported by Stu Woo for The Wall Street Journal.

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