Naughty and nice: Santa shares his trade secrets

Forget Barbie, forget Tickle Me Elmo. Laptops are the new hot ticket, according to the man who knows firsthand what kids want.

It's his busiest time of year, but the jolly old elf graciously agreed to talk to The Hook and give the inside story of the Santa biz.

For example, some mall Santas reportedly wear rubber-lined pants to protect against the dampening effects of little children's excitement. Not this St. Nick.

"Mine are solid velvet with silk lining inside," says Santa, who also goes by the name Jerry Kirby. "I've haven't had one child that's had an accident." Nor has the occasional dog or cat in his lap caused any problems.

In a cynical age, how does he deal with the doubt, the questions of whether he is really Santa? "I have a real beard," says Santa. "Everyone else has a fake beard. I told a little boy who asked if I was real to pull it. He said, 'Oh God, he's real.'"

And he offers this tip to would-be Santas: "Don't try to grab a child and put them on your lap. Let them come to you." Having a candy cane in hand also helps.

Kirby has been helping Santa out since his brother-in-law, the late Darden Towe, suggested it 30 years ago. By September, he's booked, and he appears locally at Michael's, Wild Wings, and preschools and daycare centers from Thanksgiving on. And this isn't a job where he can rest on his laurels. He's got to stay up on the latest toys to know what children will be asking for.

How many kids are looking at lumps of coal or switches in their stockings this year? "I have never told them they'd get switches," says Santa firmly.

And how does he know if they've been good or bad? "I look over at the parents," he says. "They shake their head yes or no when I ask the child if he's been good."

Age: 68

What brought you here? I was born here at Martha Jefferson in 1934.

What's worst about living here? The heat and humidity in the summertime

Favorite hangout? Fashion Square Mall

What would people be surprised to know about you? I was a volunteer fireman for 35 years.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I wish my stomach didn't shake like a bowlful of jelly.

What accomplishment are you proudest of? Being Santa, and working with the Lion's Club.

What do people find most annoying about you? My ho-ho-ho is too loud sometimes.

Whom do you admire? The nursing staff and doctors in Charlottesville at the university and at Martha Jefferson.

Favorite read? Golf Digest

 What subject causes you to rant? When Rudolph doesn't do what Santa wants.

What thrills you about life in the 21st century? I'm fortunate to be here, thanks to open-heart surgery.

What creeps you out about life in the 21st century? The way these teenagers dress. Boys with the seat of their pants down to their knees, girls wearing short sweaters that show their stomachs that really ticks me off.

What do you drive? A sleigh

What's in your sleigh CD player right now? Christmas songs

What's your next journey? Back to the North Pole

What's the most trouble you've ever gotten in? Not getting the right toys for boys or girls, or forgetting something on their list.

What do you regret? Not being able to bring kids everything they expect.

Favorite comfort food? Hot dogs or steamed shrimp

What's always in your refrigerator? Cheese, salad, hot dogs, ham, and milk

Must-see TV? Crystal Cathedral

 Favorite cartoon? Three Stooges

Describe a perfect day. Working on the sleigh and getting it ready for next year. In the summer, working in the yard with my wife helping.

Walter Mitty fantasy? Being a judge

Who'd play you in the movie? John Wayne

Most embarrassing moment? Leaving the house with my dad to go fishing and forgetting my rod and reel.

Best advice you ever got? Be honest regardless if it hurts.

Favorite bumper sticker? "I lost my dog and wife. Reward for dog."