Some of the kids crawling onto Santa Joe's lap this year have more than stuffed animals and video games on their most-wanted lists. Several times already this season, Joe Jackson has been asked to get Daddy a job or Mommy money to buy the house back.
"You see things behind the beard that nobody else will ever see or hear. I've had children just literally tear my heart out," said Jackson, who is pulling on his red suit for a 19th season of playing Santa at private parties and festivals in the northern part of the state.
The slumping economy has families across the nation facing one of their toughest Christmases in years. That means Santa Claus, the jolly confidante for so many under 10, is hearing more than simple requests for a new Nintendo Wii or Elmo Live.
"Children are very trusting of Santa. They are very open with him. They tell him things they normally wouldn't discuss with other people. And they usually ask Santa to fix things. They know he is someone who can grant wishes," said Timothy Connaghan, of Riverside, Calif., who has played Santa for 40 years and trained more than 1,500 other Santas across the country through his "School 4 Santas."
He coaches aspiring Kris Kringles to remember that a good Santa can't promise a new job or money to make everyone's Christmas dreams come true, "but he can tell them things are always going to get better," Connaghan said.
It's not just children who can use some of Santa's optimism. A Gallup poll earlier this month found consumers are going to spend $150 less this Christmas than last year. The $616 per person was the lowest amount since the research company began asking the question a decade ago.
At Columbia Place Mall in South Carolina, retailers already are trying to fight the trend by handing out thousands of coupon books. And while the traditionally harried shopping season had yet to arrive last week, even that mall's Santa, sitting in his plush chair waiting for the occasional child, had noticed fewer people making purchases.
Dear Santa letters address crisis, too
Lakicha Mansfield strolled past the Old Navy, Zales and video game store without buying anything. As 4-year-old daughter Mahoganie Whitaker told Santa her wishes for a Cinderella doll, Hannah Montana bubbles and balloons, Mansfield said Christmas will be tough because she's been looking for work for nine months.
"I'm going to try to get her what she wants, some way, somehow," the 30-year-old said. "I just hope some money comes in soon. I haven't got her anything yet. I hope someone calls soon."
Meanwhile, Mahoganie chatted with Santa, nodding as she explained that, yes, she ate all her vegetables, cleaned up after herself and was always nice to her mother.
"It's nice to see her up there with him," Mansfield said. "She has no idea what I'm going through."
Santa is getting some heart-wrenching letters at the North Pole, too. Denise Griffitts of Lafayette, La., volunteers for Operation Santa Claus, answering about 250 letters a year from children in her area.
"They're not asking for a Wii or an Xbox. They're asking for personal care items, they're asking for school supplies, they're asking for warm clothing," Griffitts said.
Connaghan, the Santa trainer, said Santas always want kids to leave their laps happier than when they came.
"Children tend to take on a lot of their parents' worries. They don't always understand what those worries are and sometimes they will embellish them," he said. "All Santas can hope is to say a few words that are going to be optimistic and give children a feeling everything is going to get better."
Jackson said his years around children have given him a sense of when children have something depressing on their minds. He said a bellowed "Ho, ho, ho!" a compliment and patter of questions helps get their minds off darker thoughts.
"Every time a child goes away with a smile, I know I've done something good," he said.
Raymond Jemison beamed when his mom brought him to the mall from kindergarten. Laroya Missouri, 25, of Camden, said she's not going to be able to buy the 5-year-old as much as last year, but she is glad she still has a job and can get him some presents.
"He's the most important thing. I want to make sure he has a good Christmas," she said.