Be quick and hug him while you can
By BELINDA SCOTT
YES, Virginia, in Coffs Harbour you can still sit on Santa's knee.
But caveats are creeping in among the ringing bells and ho, ho, hos.
In Western Australia, political correctness and restrictive shopping rules imposed by shopping centres and recruiting agencies have been blamed for a shortage of store Santas as the jolly chaps hang up their black boots and red coats in protest.
Queensland's Sunday Mail said WA Santas were told they could not hand out sweets, could not pat children on the head; could not put children on their laps without permission from parents, and could not have photographs taken with youngsters unless their hands were in full view.
Santas were even being told not to go around saying 'ho ho ho' because they could frighten children.
The newspaper reported one Santa of 41 years experience saying it
was no longer politically correct to be fat, jolly and old and another saying he had to walk through a shopping centre in silence.
As a result, some long-time Santas are quitting and new recruits are reluctant, with one WA agency saying it was short 10 Santas.
But the news is a lot rosier in Coffs Harbour.
Palms Shopping manager Craig Piper said there were no regulations governing Santas specifically.
Mr Piper said the wide bench Santa seats which have replaced the smaller Santa thrones had been driven purely by the demands of Santa photography and the changes in the structure of families, which often saw a large number of people wanting to be in the picture with Santa, rather than by any bans on Santa's knees.
"People are a little more liberal in Coffs Harbour ? our Santa can pretty much judge straight away what kids want to do and also whether parents are happy and comfortable," Mr Piper said.
He said while there were no rules, parents also needed to take some responsibility about what they wanted their children to do.
But the regulation winds are blowing stronger every year.
Park Beach Plaza shopping centre now has rules for Santas which include wearing white gloves so there is no bare skin contact and not touching children on the head because some religious practices forbid it.
Lance Miller of The Camera House, who has organised the Centre's Santas this year, said the Plaza had a specially-designed and built seat for Santa which allowed children to sit on the side but not directly on Santa's knee, to make the contact as appropriate as possible.
"We want Santa to be Santa, not a lolly-carrying paedophile," he said.
"It is probably being politically correct, but it is better to be in front with a better standard of service."
Adult nail-biting and political correctness goes right over the heads of Santa's customers, the kids, who love the big guy in the red suit just as much as ever and can't wait to have a chat to him about what they want to see in their Christmas stocking.