Insanity Claus

Shopping-mall North Poles have long been accused of harboring bad Christmas tidings: pinched hindquarters, peppermint-schnapps breath, bribery to skip the line and go straight to the lap. And that's just the elves. But these days, it's possible to apply the scientific method to such capitalistic weigh stations of our avarice. And so, dear children, I have compiled all the tearstained wish lists, empty stockings, untouched tidings of milk and cookies, and Chinese delivery menus accrued during my 25 Christmases as a Jew, and applied them toward making your Yule as efficient as humanly possible.

All North Pole villages share common elements, and not only because they all rent Santa from the same companies. Typically, visiting hours are from late morning to late evening, with shortened Sundays; picture packages run from about $10 to $40; and portly white males dominate the role with little respect for the accomplishments of black Elvis impersonators. Though all Santas learned to "ho ho ho" and jingle their bells in the same way, there is plenty of difference in setting and stagecraft. To wit:

The Cherry Creek Mall boasts an impressive sleigh-throne inside Santa's den, built within an enormous fake Christmas tree near the elevator. The velvet-clad, black-booted, bell-jingling Mr. and Mrs. Claus are both Rockwell-quality, probably the best in town. (This must be their first stop.) The most-asked-for toys are Botox Barbie and Viagra Ken with Tantric Love Grip, but you won't find them in the large, empty boxes sitting around wrapped like presents.

This Christmas, FlatIron Crossing falls short in its role as the crown jewel of the crowded northern suburbs. The Santa is authentic, but his reception seat is plain and surrounded not by his usual entourage, but by clipboard-toting mall employees, fake snow and green carny fencing used to herd the long line. The whitened trees are classy and festive in a restrained way. Frequently heard requests: a new baby brother, an exchange for last year's new baby brother, and a house that looks different from the neighbors' manse.

The Westminster Mall continues its tradition of the appearance of affordability with its sparse and ordinary tree, its photo backdrop that looks to be old Vegas wedding-chapel decor, and its Nativity scenes full of no more than a hint of religious allusion. Instead of elves, expect to see photographer's assistants; instead of a baby Jesus, mannequins in tuxedos and gaudy maroon bridesmaids' dresses. Glitter mixed into fake snow will fill your heart with cheer as you pass the fencing -- white this time -- through the short line. Expect to hear at least one kid ask Santa for some new mud flaps for Daddy's dually.

The Colorado Mills workshoppe de Santa is in keeping with the mall's general Western-log-cabin hardwood theme. A rough-hewn beam structure hung with wooden toys contains a waiting area with small trees, one huge fake gift and enough digital equipment to snap your kid's pic, spit out the finished prints, and scan through the naughty-nice filter, all before your very eyes. Here Santa is amply jolly but somewhat less than plump. Maybe it's because the mall allows free visits for those who don't want photographs.

Park Meadows sticks its nose even further in the air than usual with its Santa Ski Village, a fake alpine town nestled in the heart of Colorado Holiday, a mini-mall-within-a-mall on the Meadows' south side. Passing through the line cordoned off by glamorous velvet rope, your kids can marvel at the little post office, candy shop and main-street stores tucked in between fake mountains and tiny trees. Santa's seating is certainly the best at this mall: Pictures are taken in a faux ski-lift house on a fake lift chair. Common Christmas wishes here are a new trophy mommy and a Lexus with a big, honking bow on top of it, to sit in the garage until Junior turns sixteen.

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Ben Hiller

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