WASHINGTON – Santa has lots going against him — school-yard rumors, older brothers who think they know the deal and tattle to the young ones, errant price tags, the tell-all Internet and so many Made in China labels it seems the North Pole has outsourced to Asia. Humbuggers everywhere. But no worries. It's a wonderful life for Santa.
An AP-AOL News poll finds him to be an enduring giant in the lives of Americans.
Fully 86 percent in the poll believed in Santa as a child. And despite the multiethnic nature of the country, more than 60 percent of those with children at home consider Santa important in their holiday celebrations now.
That's an approval rating President Bush and most in Congress could only dream about these days. (If Santa were a politician, Catholics and the nonreligious would be his base.)
Among the findings:
_Santa is important to 60 percent of Catholics, 51 percent of those without a religious affiliation and 47 percent of Protestants, when households both with and without children are surveyed.
_Nearly half, 47 percent, said Santa detracts from the religious significance of Christmas; over one-third, 36 percent, said he enhances the religious nature of the holiday.
_91 percent of whites believed in Santa as a child; 72 percent of minorities did. One quarter of those now living in households with incomes under $25,000 did not believe in Santa.
_An overwhelming majority, across nearly all backgrounds and religious beliefs, say they believe in angels — 81 percent. Belief in angels is shared by 57 percent of those who say they have no religious affiliation. Nearly all white evangelical Christians, 97 percent, share this belief.
Somehow, the tradition has survived all that challenges tradition.
Carl Anderson studied Santa beliefs as a doctoral student 20 years ago, looking at the phenomenon then and a century earlier. A child psychologist with a long, real beard, he's since put in 18 Christmases at the Dallas NorthPark Center absorbing the wide-eyed wishes of little ones.
So what's new, Santa?
Remarkably, he says, not much. The set of beliefs appears to have remained largely intact since the topic was studied in the late 1800s.
Few kids have challenged him over the years, he said. When one little girl did so, tentatively, this week, he did what psychologists always seem to do. He answered by asking a question.
"Santa, some people are saying they don't believe in you," she told him shyly.
"Well, what do you say to them?"
"I tell them they haven't met you."
Case closed, for now.
In the poll, 8 was the average age for a child's Santa reality check. Fifteen percent hung on to their belief over age 10. The telephone poll of 1,000 adults was taken Dec. 12-14 by Ipsos, an international polling firm. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Kimberly Schiller, 25, of Levittown, N.Y., believed in Santa until she was 13. He was a comfort to her after her dad left home when she was 12. "So I was kind of holding on to that last bit of childhood," she said.
"I teach 13-year-olds now," she went on. "They are just so jaded. They always want stuff. It's kind of sad that they don't believe anymore."
Wendy Ross, 50, from Kings City, Calif., said she gave up her Santa belief when she was about 5, but that didn't spoil Christmas for her. "The only thing that spoiled the holidays for me was me. I threw a fit if I didn't get what I wanted."
Now the mother of three grown children, Ross said she brought her kids up to focus on Jesus, at the expense of Santa. Now she sees Santa as a symbol of giving, but also one of superheated commercialism.
In Louisville, Ky., Ron Montgomery agrees with that downside. "Now if you are using Santa Claus to push a $100 robotic dinosaur, then that's a problem," he said. But the 64-year-old grandfather counts himself as a Santa believer to this day.
"It's the whole atmosphere," he said. "Santa Claus is the spirit. The trees, the church, the whole works. You actually see more of your neighbors.
"It's a feeling. It's not like a ghost. It's an attitude."
Reaching deep into memory, Margaret Klumpp, 88, of Windsor, N.Y., recalled hiding her Santa doubts from her parents. "I think probably I pretended I believed so my parents would keep doing it," she said. "I don't know if I was that smart at 5, but I did later."
Now she sees Santa through the eyes of five great-grandchildren, the oldest 6, and considers him a complement to the Christian celebration.
"When you are a little child you go to Santa and after that you move over to Jesus," she said. "I think it kind of goes together."
Anderson shared his historical expertise with an elite group this summer in Missouri, addressing the international convention of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas.
At the Dallas mall, he knows the faces looking up at him will be clouded by questions before long. But for many kids, the letdown also comes with an upside.
"They see themselves as more grown up," he said through that beard. "They're on the other side now."