Santa Claus can bring kids dollhouses, remote-control cars and cuddly puppies — but he can't take back Sept. 11.

That's the sad fact storefront Santas are dreading they'll have to tell children as they try to spread that holiday cheer this year.

"We've talked to a number of our Santas who started out right after Thanksgiving, and most of them have said that somewhere along the line, children and parents have talked about their safety and security," Felicia Mindte, co-owner of Costa Mesa, Calif.-based www.santaforhire.com, which arranges appearances for 118 Santas across the country. "Santa, of course, reassures them."

The Sept. 11 blues have gotten so bad nationwide that the business has been coaching its Kris Kringles on what do if a child asks Santa for the ungrantable, like having dad return home from Afghanistan, or ensuring a grandfather missing in the World Trade Center is safe and sound. In the end, it's Father Christmas' sympathetic magic that does the most good, she said.

"When we interview our Santas now we point out what to say and tell them to be prepared for those questions from children," Mindte said. "But all our Santas are adept at human relationships. They like kids, they like adults, they're extroverted and they care about people."

The ability to empathize and give solace is key for Dick Shea, the whiskered, blue-eyed man who stands in for St. Nick at the Manhattan Mall, in the heart of New York City.

A nine-year veteran of the red suit and sleigh bells, and voted New York's Best Santa by the New York Post in 1994, Shea said that none of the 300 or so children he sees each day has asked him for anything related to Sept. 11. And he's made a point of not changing the way he does things he still accepts the letters and gifts that many children give him.

But every day he sees effects of the terrorist attacks, in desolate stores and the relatively sparse lines of kids and parents who line up for a candy cane and a picture on his knee.

"This is very quiet," he said, shaking a bell-ringed arm at a nearly empty mall usually thronged with shoppers. "Usually it's slow during the week, but this year it's been like this all the time."

Shea estimated that he's been getting about one-third fewer children to see him than in previous years, and the tourists who visit him aren't the usual ones from Minnesota or Ohio.

"The tourists I'm getting are from Ireland and England, or from other places where they're used to terrorism," the 62-year-old said.

But while he hasn't had to talk about Sept. 11 with any children yet, years of explaining tragedies to sad kids like the little girl who saw her father taken away in handcuffs have convinced Shea that he's prepared.

"I never know what I'm going to say," he said. "But it would be something like, 'Santa's very sad, but you're very special and you're going to have to be strong and carry on for your mom or dad. Santa's very proud of you.'"

Shea didn't have to put those words to use as he sat 3-year-old Azariah Stephenson on his lap and listened to her secret Christmas wishes. Even though Azariah's mother, Iris Logan, is a New York postal worker, the little girl is blissfully free of cares about anthrax, Usama bin Laden or the war in Afghanistan.

"She's hoping for a Christmas tree for Christmas," Shea said, chuckling Santa-like as Azariah waved goodbye.