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Wow. Even Santa’s gotta become a realist now???

The realness of this recession and parents’ tight budgets is even changing the way Santas are being trained for their holiday gigs at malls across America.

The result is a Christmas season in which Santas — including the 115 of them in this year’s graduating class of the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School — must learn to swiftly size up families’ financial circumstances, gently scale back children’s Christmas gift requests and even how to answer the wish some say they have been hearing with more frequency — “Can you bring my parent a job?”

Santas here tell of children who appear on their laps with lists that include the latest, most expensive toys and their parents, standing off to the side, stealthily but imploringly shaking their heads no. On the flip side, some, like Fred Honerkamp, have been visited by children whose expectations seem to have sunk to match the gloom; not long ago, a boy asked him for only one item — a pair of sneakers that actually fit.

“In the end, Santas have to be sure to never promise anything,” said Mr. Honerkamp, an alumnus of the school who also lectures here. He has devised his own tale about a wayward elf and slowed toy production at the North Pole for children who are requesting a gift clearly beyond their family’s price range. “It’s hard to watch sometimes because the children are like little barometers, mirrors on what the country has been through.”

The Santa school itself, held in this small, central Michigan city over three days every fall, may offer some measure of the nation’s woes. Last month, it drew the largest class of its history. And while most of the men were longtime, passionate Santas looking to hone their skills in hair bleaching, story-telling and sign language, at least a handful, including an aerospace engineer and an accountant, said they were testing out Santa school in part because of slim times, shrunken retirement accounts, or a dearth of work altogether.

But the message has shifted with the times. Some Santas say they now feel a larger obligation to speak up in the face of giant, expensive wish lists, an obligation to lower expectations in a way that only Santas (not parents) can get away with. At least one Santa, Gary Christie, had devised a specific routine for talking children out of their demand for an iPod or the like.

Another, Rick Parris, said, “When kids start asking for the world now, I just say, ‘Hey, look, Johnny, you ain’t getting all that.’ ” The former Alabama state trooper added, “I just make sure to let them know that Santa seldom brings everything on a list.”

Even with the economic downturn, not all the Christmas lists have grown shorter. Some children show up with elaborate printouts, cross-referenced spread sheets and clippings from catalogs. “I try to guide the children into not so unrealistic things, and I do tell them that Santa’s been cutting back too,” said Tom Ruperd, of Caro, Mich., who added that parents often silently signal their appreciation.

When questions get more complex, Mr. Ruperd said, they sometimes require “creative answers.” The solutions, it seems, may be beyond what any school could prepare one for, and possibly out of Santa’s reach altogether. “If they asked for something that’s totally impossible — a job for Daddy, say — I usually tell them, ‘Santa specializes in toys, but we can always pray on the other,’ ” Mr. Ruperd said. “ ‘Is there anything in toys that you’d like?’ ”

“Life as a shorty shouldn’t be so rough…”



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