"Seems we're all so busy trying to beat the other fellow in making things go faster and look shinier and cost less that Christmas and I are sort of getting lost in the shuffle."
- Kris Kringle,
"Miracle on 34th Street"

Mary Landau can't help it. She's crying and pouting like an irritable 5-year-old who stands too long in line waiting for Santa Claus, only to find Santa scary and distant and phony and please, Mom, don't make me take a picture with that man!

I'm telling you why. Turns out her Santa Claus is not coming to town.

There's a very important distinction to make here, because Landau's Santa is not just any red-suited, fake-bearded, scripted mall Santa. He's real.

So real, in fact, that in 1995, he legally changed his name to Santa A. Claus, the middle initial to honor his hometown of Allentown. (Don't even try to get him to tell you his birth name. Disclosing it will kill the magic, he says.)

Every year for the last 19 Christmases, Landau's three children, along with thousands of other Delaware County kids, had shared their Christmas wishes with Santa and his wife, Mrs. Claus, at Concord Mall in Wilmington.

But this year, when Landau, who lives in Wallingford, went to the mall's website to find out when Santa would be arriving, she found it odd that there was no mention of it.

She checked it once. Checked it twice. Nothing.

Then there was the post on Santa's site (www.santa-a-claus.com) that turned her confusion into dread: Santa was gone.

Seems that Concord Mall, in a cost-saving measure, decided not to renew Santa's contract. What was worse, Santa and Mrs. Claus would be spreading glad tidings far, far away, at the Jersey Gardens Mall in Elizabeth, N.J., 110 miles north.

For Landau, that might as well be the North Pole.

"Why, Santa, why?" Landau whines, tongue only halfway planted in cheek. "You're a tradition for most families in this area. What am I supposed to tell my children? You're the only Santa they know!"

Ho, ho, say what?

Hey, the move surprised Claus, too.

After all, he was the real deal.

"They dropped us," says Claus. "We only had four days to contact someone else, or we'd be out in the cold."

With no time to waste, he went job-hunting. Sound familiar? First time in all these years.

And he had plenty of credentials to trumpet.

The former truck driver packs 260 unpadded pounds on his 5-foot-4 frame. His dyed-white beard is his own. He actually owns 11 reindeer, which he boards in Hershey, Lancaster, and Elk Mountain.

Told you he's the real deal.

Claus, 71, started playing Santa back in 1963 wearing "fake everything," he says. It wasn't until he survived a head-on collision that put him on permanent disability in 1983 that he adopted the persona permanently.

Unlike the robo-mall-St. Nicks who are allowed to speak of Santa only in the third person and who fall out of character when it's time for a cigarette break, Claus is Claus 24/7 - whether he's sitting in his Santa seat or eating a slice of pizza in the food court.

"I'm a human being. I do what comes natural," says Claus, who, truth be told, sounds like Ed Asner. "I just don't sit in the chair. I go down on the floor and play with the kids. We've even taken pictures with babies underneath the tree while they were sleeping."

Which was why Christmas visits with the Clauses were so special.

"Visiting him and Mrs. Claus was like going to visit your grandparents," Landau says. "You hadn't seen them in a while. You talk to them, take a picture with them, and walk away feeling good."

Claus concedes that he wanted to stay at Concord Mall to make his 20th anniversary. But he figures the only move he makes now will be back home to Allentown, so for this season, he's resigned himself to Jersey Gardens.

The reality is that he and Mrs. Claus, 67, are not getting any younger, nor is life getting any easier. Last year, Claus, who has two artificial knees, was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy.

"Things haven't been too good, but I can still talk to the kids and make them happy. That's all that matters," he says in typical Santa fashion.

Landau's on a crusade for his return, and she's enlisted all of her Facebook friends to spread the word, she says.

"My husband thinks I'm crazy. 'It's just a Santa,' he says. But it's not 'just a Santa.' He's my Santa!"

at 215-854-4986, Ajohnhall@phillynews.com,