Santa Claus is sipping his peppermint mocha and somehow managing not to get any on his snow-white, beautifully coiffed beard.

"I have a lot of practice," he says, his blue eyes twinkling merrily. We're at the food court at Barton Creek Square just moments before the start of Santa's morning shift of wish-taking. Even though it's bustling with mall-walkers, the shopping center isn't technically open yet, and Santa has just trudged up the unmoving escalator in his heavy red velvet suit. But he's in a good mood.

"I love doing this," he says. "Mothers always apologize for kids squirming and kicking me, and I say, 'This is what Santa's for,'" he says, taking another careful sip.

Even with the recession, Santa says, it's been a good year for him. He hasn't been thrown up on, and he hasn't had to lay off any elves.

"Actually, we've had to scrounge around for a few more," he says. "One moved, and another had some sort of problem. We have a great crew." This is seasonal work, though. Might the elves have to try to sign on with other employers in March as leprechauns?

"I imagine so," he say, his droll little mouth drawing up in a bow.

So let's get to it. What are the kids requesting this year?

"You know, little girls always want dollies and Barbies and Barbie houses and Barbie cars, and little boys want cars and trucks," he says, "but this year I've been sort of surprised, because more little girls have asked for trucks. One little girl asked for a chain saw. And I've had a few boys ask for vacuum cleaners."

The odd-duck little girl with the chain saw, OK - it's been that sort of year - but what's up with the vacuum cleaner trend?

"Well, you know there's this commercial out there where a vacuum cleaner looks like a person. So they say, 'I want a vacuum cleaner that looks like me,' " he says. "Ha, ha, ha!" (Santa occasionally goes off-script from the usual "Ho, ho, ho.")

There have been moving moments, too, he says, such as when one little boy crawled up in his lap and told Santa, "I just want my Daddy to come back home from Pakistan."

"I put my arms around him and said, 'Dear Jesus, please bring Daddy home from Pakistan,' and he hugged me," Santa says.

Little kids always love dinosaurs, and this year, Santa says, they're more popular than ever. So are electronic gadgets such as iPods, sometimes requested by "little ones I'm surprised can even talk."

And, taking a page from the popular 1983 movie "A Christmas Story," some kids always ask Santa for a BB gun. And Santa knows just what to say.

"I tell them, 'You're not going to shoot your eye out, are you?' " he says. "Ho! Ho! Ho!"

handers@statesman.com; 912-2590