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IN LOVE WITH SANTA

The Saint Nick's Santa, who suddenly appeared at this Christmas-only shop on South Santa Fe Drive one day seven years ago, is mysterious when asked the standard question all Santas get asked. Reached at the Ute Trail Motel in Hot Sulphur Springs, Colorado, where he spends his weekdays, Santa (or "Bob," as the desk clerk calls him) comes right to the point.

"What do I tell kids who think there is no Santa?" he says. "I tell them the truth. I am Santa. That's who I am, and that's that."

He'd get little argument from the customers at Saint Nick's, who are deep into the spirit of the season.

A warren of loosely connected rooms, each containing at least three artificial Christmas trees clogged with ornaments, the store serves as a mecca to anyone who can't quite surrender to the notion that Christmas comes but once a year. A good 80 percent of the shoppers here are largeish women in festive holiday theme sweaters and gold-toned flat shoes, the better to shop in.

"I am trying so hard to be good," one of these women sighs to her partner in purchase. "But a solid turquoise Santa--oh!"

"Well," her friend points out, "it might be worth the expense. That's the kind of thing you use every year."

For approximately five weeks. But so what. In this crowd, Christmas "collectibles" inspire extreme emotions--from awe to avarice, and sometimes even hunger.

"I knew I should have brought along a sandwich," complains shopper Barbara West, who is holding a wicker basket full of violet-colored crystal garlands, at thirty bucks a pop. "I've been here five times in the past two weeks, and each time I stay longer."

Next on her list are three matching angels--she'll have thousands to choose from--to honor her sister's three grandkids. "An ornament's gotta mean something," Barbara explains. "One year, when my daughter was learning to play the piano, I got a piano ornament. When my son was flying helicopters for the Navy, I got a helicopter ornament. I've got boxes and boxes of ornaments up in the attic, and on each one it's written out who they should go to if something should happen to me."

West, now in her late fifties, says she became addicted to Christmas decorations "years ago, with Hallmark." She puts up one large, artificial tree each Thanksgiving and dismantles it promptly each year on the day after Christmas. The days in between are fraught with decorating and last-minute purchases. You can never have too many ornaments, she insists. Nearby, her boyfriend, who prefers to remain nameless, rolls his eyes ever so slightly upward.

"I despise all this," he says furtively, "but I don't show it."
"My husband never put up with it," Barbara says. "But he's my boyfriend, and a boyfriend is different."

Rooms away, on the outskirts of the "Gone Fishin'" theme Christmas tree, salesclerk and bow-tying expert Kristin Birkelbach speculates on the plight of a man outside who apparently was brought along on an ornament-shopping spree. (At this moment, the large man is hooked up to an oxygen tank and sits patiently by the front door. He may have been there for hours.) Others, Kristin says, are forced into browsing. "Still, they like the ceramic villages," Kristin points out. "That gets them excited. And the fishing Santas, of course."

The fishing-theme tree began as an homage to Anglers All, a high-end fishing supply store located just north of Saint Nick's. But it quickly mushroomed. Today, a river would have a tough time running through this collection of trout, boat, hip-wader and canoe-paddling ornaments. Nearby is an even more outdoorsy collection--including Santa in his sleeping bag, Santa with his faithful hunting dog, and cowboy Santa, tall and slim, bringing a newborn calf into the bunkhouse.

A few rooms away, the Santa ornaments become less manly and more menschlike: thin Santas, fat Santas, black, Hispanic and Native American Santas, what appears to be a drunken Santa riding home from the bar on a pig, and a sixteen-inch-high Santa as cossack, clutching his stomach, his face clenched in pain, now on sale for a cool thousand dollars. At Saint Nick's, there are far more Santas than Jesuses.

"Santa-collecting is a hot trend," explains Saint Nick's owner Sue Sealy, who is already trying to figure out what will come next. "We close from January 15 through March 3 so I can go to the trade shows and buy more of this stuff. I've been wrong a couple of times, but I seem to have a touch." She has a tolerance, too, for the Christmas music that plays wherever she is, all year round. (Right now, Nat "King" Cole is carefully pronouncing the lyrics to "O Tannenbaum.") "I love it, actually," she says, "the creativity, and the fun, and the fact that 99 percent of the people who come into this store are happy."

Sealy and her husband fell into the Christmas business by mistake nineteen years ago. "We already owned a gift shop," she says, "but we ordered so much extra Christmas stuff, we had to rent an extra storefront to put it in. It was incredibly successful. We realized that people who like this stuff will shop for it in the middle of August. And I mean people from Nebraska, Wyoming, all over."

Seven years ago the Sealys expanded, leasing their current property, which contains not just a showroom but a warehouse--to which customers are transported in golf carts--filled with artificial Christmas trees and wreaths.

"And that's not all," she adds. "We also have Santa, and he's the best Santa in town. He will spend thirty minutes with a kid, if the kid has something to talk about. He will write them long letters. Once, when a little boy told him all he wanted for Christmas was his grandma back, our Santa gave the most amazing, beautiful explanation of how grandma would always be there. And he really straightens out the older kids, the ones who think Santa doesn't exist."

Yes, Santa agrees, "I like to take a little longer with the children so I can help." Sometimes it can take a little longer to explain his whole Santa zeitgeist, not to mention the not-exactly-Mall-Santa outfit. "My beard is my own," he says. "I wear a red velvet suit lined with white silk and trimmed with white mink. I wear a buckskin vest and a pouch made of reindeer skin."

Rudolph died for this?
"Oh, please, flying reindeer?" he says, a touch of exasperation in his voice. "A lot of farfetched things have been written about Santa. I ought to know. Here's how it works. Santa is a messenger for the Little People. They'll pick six to ten people for the job, and then they narrow it down to one. I realized I had been named Santa when I was 25."

Now 43, Santa has had almost two decades of experience with the Little People, whom he subdivides into leprechauns, gnomes, dwarfs, elves, fairies and pixies. Despite the Christmasy nature of his name, he says, he works hard all the rest of the year supervising a massive, international shovel-manufacturing concern. "Someone has to run the circuit between the elves, who actually make the shovels, and the pixies, who come up with the ideas and blueprints and so on," he says. "That's been Santa's job forever.