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Mall Santas Coached To Temper Kids' Expectations


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Lynn Neary.

Warning to parents: The next story contains some seasonally sensitive information on the subject of Santa, so beware if there are any young ones nearby. As everyone knows, Santa sends helpers to malls all over the country around this time of year to find out what children want for Christmas, like these kids who visited one of Santa's mall proxies in Athens, Ohio, over the weekend.

BRADEN NEECE: I want Barbie.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That would be nice.

ALEE SMITH: A train track.


BRIANA NEECE: The movie "Song of the South." Walt Disney made it.

DERRICK WILSON: An M3(ph) player and flip-flops.

GRACIE HANNAH: Optimus Prime and that DVD called "Scooby-Doo All-Star Laff-A-Lympics Volume 2," it's guaranteed.


HANNAH: That's all I want.

NEARY: That was Braden Neece(ph), Alee Smith (ph), Briana Neece(ph), Derrick Wilson(ph) and Gracie Hannah(ph). Usually, the most challenging part of representing Santa is cajoling the shy and comforting the scared, but this year, even Santa's workshop is being hit hard by the economic downturn. And that means some kids may not get everything they want. So one man has been working with some of Santa's helpers to teach them how to gently limit kids' expectations this year.

His name is Fred Honerkamp of the Charles W. Howard Santa School, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program, Mr. Honerkamp.

FRED HONERKAMP: Thank you, Lynn. It's a pleasure to be here.

NEARY: So tell me, have you noticed any difference in recent years in what kids might ask for?

HONERKAMP: We have. Children are little barometers of their environment, and they'll put a hand up to Santa's ear and whisper something like, can you get Daddy a job, or can you help us sell our house? And in each of those cases, we say that we can't get Daddy a job. We can't sell your house. What we can do is Mrs. Claus and I know that you're going through a tough time, and we'll get down on our knees tonight and say a special prayer just for you and your family.

NEARY: What about when kids ask for really expensive things?

HONERKAMP: Well, we try to manage the expectations. First, Santa never promises anything. I weave in little stories about the North Pole. A child, for example, will ask for a - an iPad, and I'll say, oh, I wish you hadn't asked for that. And they'll say why? And I'll say, well, have you ever been to the North Pole? Well, of course not. But up there, we have building two. You go out of the main lodge, and the snow is very deep. You go down to building two, and that's where we do our electronics.

And the little elf that's making the iPads is an elf named Rupert. And guess what he's doing? And the child will say, what? He's playing with them. We're way behind production. I don't know what I'm going to do. I don't think we're going to be able to fill the iPad orders.


NEARY: And that works, huh?

HONERKAMP: It does work. But we've also seen the flip side of the economy. Boys and girls come up and say, Santa, we know that it's difficult for some families this year. Would you please bring my presents to somebody who can really use them?

NEARY: Oh, how sweet.

HONERKAMP: It is. It's just heartbreaking. Just the other day, we had a young boy that came in, and he said, Santa, can I get a new pair of sneakers? And I thought it was one of the lists of presents, and I said, oh, wonderful. What else can I get? And he said, that's all. If you can just get me a pair of sneakers that don't hurt my feet, I'll be happy.

NEARY: Oh, wow. Now, what about parents? Do they sometimes send Santa signals about whatever their situation might be?

HONERKAMP: They do. You can see them in the background. And when somebody asks for the new Nintendo 7000, you can see a parent shaking their head from side to side. And that's a clear indication for Santa to weave a story around how we're having technical difficulties with the Nintendos this year.

NEARY: Well, it was fun talking with you this afternoon.

HONERKAMP: I wish you and yours the very best for the holiday spirit.

NEARY: Fred Honerkamp helps Santa's helpers get ready for Christmas with his Charles W. Howard Santa School in Midland, Michigan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.