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Dennis Van Vuren as well. He’s been a Santa for more than twenty years, the last dozen at Janss Mall in Thousand Oaks.

Dennis is a perfect Santa. He has a laugh you can fairly call “jolly” that rolls up from an ample belly to his jowls. He has the requisite red suit and a gleeful smile that can make the most fearful toddler settle down in his lap.

Some children don’t just ask for toys. They’ll ask for money, cars, jewelry, and animals. Dennis’ Santa has the answer.

“Well,” he’ll say, “Santa’s a toy maker. I only make toys. I don’t make anything else. Well, maybe some clothes and sporting goods equipment; some books and tapes; some musical stuff. But I don’t make major appliances. And no money. The government doesn’t like it if I make money. And no animals. If I give you a dog, I have to give that little boy who asked for an elephant today, an elephant. I’d have a zoo up there at the North Pole.”

And the question kids ask most:

“Where are the reindeer.”

“The North Pole,” he answers matter-of-factly.

And of course a good Santa like Dennis can rattle off their names -DasherDancerPrancerVixonCometCupidDonnerBlixen, and Rudolph.

Dennis doesn’t ask kids whether they’ve been naughty or nice. For some kids, he says, that’s a lot of pressure.

“Don’t worry,” he tells them right off. “You’re on the nice list.”

Then, after putting them at ease, Santa gives a little advice.

“You know those dirty clothes? You’ve got to put them inside the hamper. And your toys? Well, if I see too many lying around, I won’t think you need new ones. I’d pick them up if I was you. And your brother? You guys have to treat each other a little nicer.”

Dennis has been the Santa at Janss Mall for so many years that he has had the opportunity to see many of the same children year after year growing up. A few years ago a newspaper story showed a photo of him putting on his beard. With a little spirit gum and his actor’s talent with make-up, you can’t tell his beard’s not real. But for a seven-year-old who saw the photo, the revelation that the Santa, whose lap he had sat on for the last six years, wasn’t really Santa was a disappointment.

The child came up to sit on his lap anyway. He shook his head.

“I know,” he said sadly.

“Know what?” Santa asked.

“I know you’re not real. I saw the newspaper. I know how to read.”

“You know what,” Dennis said in his softest voice. “All your life I have been your Santa. I’ve listened to all your wishes and dreams. I’ve shared Christmas with you. I’ve gotten great big hugs from you. I’ve been a part of your life. I don’t know about you but it has meant the world to me. Thanks for coming up here and being with me.”

The little boy looked back at Dennis and said, “You know, I don’t know if there’s a real Santa or not. But if there is, I bet it’s someone just like you.”

Those moments are the perks of the job. Dennis says if you want to know what it’s like to feel like Santa Claus, it’s easy. Take a few bucks, buy a toy, and drop it inside a “Toys for Tots” box. You’ll never know who gets it. You’ll never hear one thank you from anyone. But what you will do is make Christmas happy for a child who wouldn’t have had a Merry Christmas but for you.

“And that’s what Christmas is about,” Santa told me. “It’s not what you get. It’s what you give.”