Whichever biography of Santa Claus you choose to believe, youíve got to figure the old man is really getting up in years. Reports received here at the Bulletin indicate that he is having a bit of difficulty getting around to all the places folks would like for him to be during the weeks prior to Christmas Day.

Even someone like Santa has to slow down after all this time. In 1809 Washington Irving, a member of the New York Historical Society, offered reports of a chubby, pipe-smoking little Saint Nicholas who rode a magic horse through the air visiting all houses in New York. The elfish figure was small enough to slide down chimneys with gifts for the good children and switches for the bad ones, according to the Web site of The Holiday Spot.

Much of the present form of the Santa story is certainly due to the works of Clement Clark Moore and the cartoons of Thomas Nast, both from New York. In 1822, Dr. Moore wrote a Christmas poem, ďA visit from St. NicholasĒ to read out to his children on Christmas Eve.

The following year, a woman named Harriet Butler read the poem and asked Moore for a copy. She later sent it without Dr. Moore's consent to the Troy (N.Y.) Sentinel. Consequently it was published and became widely circulated. In 1938 Dr. Moore revealed that St. Nicholas was his creation, and since then his creation has appeared countless times.

Nast, who had lived on the same West 23rd Street as Dr. Moore, did a series of Christmas drawings for Harperís Weekly. That was where the familiar fat and rosy cheeked Santa with a long beard made his debut after being modified from the fat, elf-like creature depicted in Dr. Mooreís poem.

The worst-kept secret ever is that Santa Claus has helpers Ė lots of helpers. Some of them are elves, busy all year long making the toys destined to be delivered on Christmas Eve to good little girls and boys around the world. But most of Santaís helpers donít live at the North Pole, and most of them are anything but elf-like. Most of the them look like you and me. And a very small percentage of them take on the awesome responsibility of donning Santaís wardrobe on occasion and representing him when the old man himself canít make an appearance. After all, Santa is in huge demand this time of year. And even for someone able to make it all the way around the world one night each year, he canít be everywhere at once. There are only so many days before Christmas, and the countdown has now reached three weeks.

I donít envy the brave souls who agree to represent Santa with red suit, black boots and beard at the nationís shopping malls, civic organizations and parades. They deal with children who can be any combination of demanding, irritable and scared out of their wits. Some are too choked up to talk. Others wonít shut up. A few, bless their hearts, are so excited they lose control of bodily functions.

And then there are the parents, especially the ones who are prime candidates for parenting skill classes at places like the Family Services Center. Iíve got to think itís all Santa can do to stop himself from giving those Moms and Dads a piece of his mind.

But the bottom line is leaving the youngsters with a pleasant experience and a positive image of Santa. Regardless of the disposition of the children or the attitude of their parents, Santa has to be on good behavior. His suit has to be clean. His breath has to smell, well, appropriate. Above all, his beard has to be securely attached.

Actually, it sounds like it could be fun. Maybe after a few more years of chicken-fried steaks and mashed potatoes, Iíll be ready to give it a try.

Gene Deason is editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Friday. He may be reached by e-mail at gene.