PLEASANTON -- 'Twas 53 shopping days before Christmas when Santa Claus arrived here at the Stoneridge mall, where he spent last week as an object of delight and derision. Shoppers who filed past what mall management insistently referred to as "the Santa set" seemed to divide naturally into two groups: Those under 4 feet tall who waved at the old elf as he sat alone on his threadbare throne. And the adults who hustled the children along, some hissing under their breath, "Too soon for Santa."
"We gotta get this thing upholstered," Santa grumbled, his ample red and white furry parts obscuring the sofa's tattered fabric. Directly across from where he sat -- with an industrial-sized dispenser of hand sanitizer nearby -- the male models pictured in the windows of Abercrombie & Fitch mockingly flexed their six-pack abs at his belly, which according to Clement Clarke Moore's famous poem, "shook when he laugh'd, like a bowl full of jelly."
But Santa wasn't laugh'ng. Not yet.
"We don't do ho-hos too much," he said, clarifying that point on behalf of seasonal Santas everywhere, even though most of them wouldn't actually be everywhere for another week or so. At large shopping malls such as Valley Fair and Oakridge in San Jose, Santa isn't due to arrive from the North Pole until a few days before Thanksgiving. Only at trendy Santana Row, where "Surfin' Santa" was scheduled to ring in the sacred holiday shopping ritual Tuesday from 3 to 9 p.m., could St. Nick and his longboard be found hangin' 10 this early in the season.
Stoneridge mall lies in the retail heart of a fertile crescent of kid-rearing communities in the East Bay. Apparently ahead of any other Bay Area shopping center, Santa set up shop there Nov. 2, less than four days from the end of the baseball season, and only 33 hours after Halloween.
"Christmas is my favorite time of the year," said Tahirah Lazarre, of Castro Valley, one 80 degree day. "But it's a little early for Santa. To me, it's obvious that they want people to be here and shop. It's not really the Christmas spirit."
We three zing
As a Muzak version of "We Three Kings" echoed across the mall's broad boulevard of boutiques, a trio of slightly irritable elder-shoppers -- who adamantly refused to give their names -- recalled a time when Christmas decorations, and attendant frippery such as sidewalk Santas, didn't come out of storage until the Thanksgiving turkey had been carved. "Too damn early," said a man in a white canvas hat. "By the time Christmas gets here, people are tired of it."
The woman sitting next to him on one of the benches where mall-walkers rest, called Santa's early emergence "a shocker." She had been padding around the mall, not actually buying anything, mind you, just taking a healthy stroll, when she spotted the jolly ol' butterball on his first day. " 'Oh my god, he's already here!' " she recalled thinking. " 'Nobody's ready for him yet.' "
Some people expressed their disgust in Facebook posts, but the mall did get more direct complaints from its customers. "We get reactions both ways," said Carrie Williams, the mall's director of marketing. "Some people are chomping at the bit, wondering when Santa's going to get here. Over the years, it has moved up a bit, but we kind of follow the retailers. They start putting up holiday decor and start the holiday promotions, so we feel like we should support what they're doing. The other reason for Santa arriving so early here is that if we started later, the lines toward the end of the season would probably be that much longer. There are those who like to get it done early."
Fear the beard
Deb Maughan, of Pleasanton, was happy to let her kids pause with Mr. Claus last Wednesday, but that wasn't the official, list-bearing visit. She will be back with her entire family in December to have their picture taken with Santa Claus. In fact, Santa was sent here by Worldwide Photography, a Houston company that recruits Santas and Easter Bunnies so it can sell pictures of children being dandled on their plush knees. "Halloween just ended, so it's early," Maughan conceded. "But it's fun to see Santa, as long as people don't tire of him, right? As long as it doesn't start earlier than Halloween, right?"
The morning-shift Santa at Stoneridge, who said he winters in Sebring, Fla., under the name Bill Champion, came equipped with a genuine and perfect snowy facial bloom, and no need for padding around the middle. "If it wasn't for the beard, let's face it, I wouldn't be here," said Santa Bill. "I personally think a person with a fake beard should be ashamed of himself. Because the children know it's fake."
A lot of seasonal Santas suffer from burnout, leading to the sort of misbehavior satirized in the movie "Bad Santa," which featured a drunken miscreant as the jolly old elf. "It gets to be sad sometimes," said Santa Bill. "I've had children who wanted to know where their mommy and daddy was. That hurts. Santa does cry. I've had children that wanted me to bring their mommy back. Santa can't do those things."
There are other things Santa can't do, such as allow brazen hussies to flash cleavage at the camera while on his lap, or gang members to flash signs. "And I always carry an extra pair of Santa pants," said Santa Bill, "because you never know when somebody is going to hand you a leaky baby."
Last week, he would have welcomed even that, as shoppers steamed by, some shaking their heads. "When I'm busy, the day goes by faster," he said of this listless lead-up period. "I have a lot more fun when I get to talk to the kids."
Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004. Follow him at Twitter.com/BruceNewmanTwit.