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Down with Kris Kringle

Days 'til Christmas are winding down and I have a strange recommendation for last minute shoppers: drive to your local San Francisco mall. When push comes to shove, shopping malls are the last place where you'd like to be during the holiday crunch, however, everyone could use a personal touch to their holiday gifts. Why not complement your Christmas presents to loved ones with a personalized photo of yourself with Santa Claus?

Photos with Santa elicit childhood memories of my mom forcing her three children upon Santa's lap. Inevitably I would burst into tears while my brother and sister whispered Christmas lists to Santa. Coercion to smile, by Santa's little helpers, upset my emotional balance and sometimes my bodily functions. Like a rite of passage, my mom subjected us to this scary holiday ritual year after year.

Looking back, I'm reminded of why Santa photos make great holiday gift companions. Like any photo, pictures with Father Christmas capture a slice of time. I cherish those photos that reveal fashion trends and haircuts that, in turn, provoke side splitting laughter. Not only do the photos embody the zeitgeist of childhood, Santa photos also mark the holiday season. As millions pile into the Malls of America or send their fruit cakes to unwilling beneficiaries, our families' Yuletide reached its pinnacle when Santa photos were sent and admired by friends and relatives.

While lining up for this year's Santa photo, I couldn't help but empathize with Ol' Saint Nick. I wonder who would subject themselves to such horrible labor conditions. Screaming children, wailing sobs, or the smell of doo doo'd bottoms isn't an appealing work environment. Who could also deal with the off-season guilt that Santa must endure after listening to unfulfilled wish lists?

The truth of the matter is Santa makes bank during the holidays. Talking with Saint Robert, from santaforhire.com, Santa's can make up to $8,000 a season and anywhere from $12 - $15 an hour. If you pass the painstaking beard pulling contest or you have an emphatic "ho, ho, ho," then you could potentially make more. Saint Robert works for the Internet talent scout who books Santas across our nation's malls and holiday parties. Saint Robert also explains that the job application process isn't as easy as throwing on faux facial hair. To be hired at his booking agency, Kris Kringle needs to go through a rigorous screening process that includes a police background check, a driver's license probe, and various child abuse scans. Saint Robert will find out which Santa has been naughty and which has been nice.

After deciding to include a Santa photo with this year's cards and gifts, I anxiously drove to Stonestown Galleria. I waited patiently in line through crowd control barriers and was finally front and center with the North Pole's pride and joy. I walked over gingerly, not knowing if I would crush his feeble arthritic knees under my adult girth. Experience told Santa to make room for the man-child and he promptly slid over where his butt impressions were foreign and seat cushion was cold to the touch. Unphased by the age difference from his last patrons, he whispers to me, "So son, what would you like for Christmas?" Before I could answer, chiming sleigh bells directed my attention to the camera and flashes flickered on queue. Within seconds I was directed off of Santa's lap to make room for the next customer. "Did you want the North Pole Special for $19.95 or the Santa Deluxe Photo package for $34.95?" asked Santa's little cash collector.

Only 15 minutes have passed since I lined up for the photos and I'm already being upsold for ten dollars more? Even Santa Claus isn't free from capitalist shakedowns. I looked at the cashier decked out in elf garb and turned down the deluxe package, "I'll have the twenty buck special please."