Speak softly, don't make promises, and most of all, remember all children are beautiful.
That was the message a group of aspiring Santa Clauses and elves heard last week from George Hipple, who has played Santa for the past eight years at The Mall in Columbia.
Dressed in red pants and suspenders, Mr. Hipple looked like a trim version of Santa with a fluffy white beard and spectacles. He spoke Wednesday to the Elkridge Area Jaycees, who are kicking off their fourth annual Santa Visits program next month.
For a donation of $15 to $20, Jaycee members don Santa Claus and elf outfits and visit homes, day care centers and nursing homes.
Last year, the group visited about 150 people and raised about $1,500 for the Johns Hopkins Hospital Children's Center in Baltimore, said Steve Nicewarner, chairman of the Santa Visits program.
"We hope to raise about $2,000," Mr. Nicewarner said. "We sent letters to people who participated last year," and have already scheduled eight visits.
To prepare for the event, which runs throughout the month of December, the Jaycees invited Mr. Hipple to advise them on the finer points of playing Santa.
Approach children cautiously, said Mr. Hipple, who added he doesn't say "Ho-Ho," but smiles a lot.
"Talk softly to them, try to get down to them as close as possible," he said, adding that some children go into "complete hysterics" when approached by strangers.
"If they're away from you a little bit, try to reach out for their hands," or comment on what they're wearing to coax them nearer, he said.
He also warned the group not to make any gift promises, unless given permission from parents.
"Never promise a child you'll bring them anything," Mr. Hipple said. Instead, find out what the child wants and leave it at that.
But if a child insists on asking for a particular toy, he suggested making a noncommittal comment, such as "We'll see."
Last of all, Mr. Hipple said he hugs each child. "All children are beautiful," he said.
The future Santas and elves found the presentation useful.
"The idea of bringing Santa down to the level of kids [was helpful]," said Jaycee Richard Keller, who will play Santa for a second year in a row. "When you do Santa you forget you're talking to a child."
During a typical visit, Jaycees dress up as Santa and an elf. The elf, often played by a female Jaycee, prepares the children for Santa's arrival by lining them up and taking their names.
Santa then distributes the children's own gifts, if that has been arranged, or gifts such as coloring books and candy. Parents then have a chance to videotape the visit.
Jaycee Marty Niessner said parents and children enjoy the visits.
"They're totally speechless when you come to the door," Mr. Niessner said of the children.
The visits also delight Jaycee members.
"You're in there for 10 to 15 minutes," Mr. Niessner said, "and you get such a charge."
To make an appointment, call at least a day in advance. The phone number is 379-8066.