After 17 years of working in malls, the Southdale Santa has gotten his gig down to a science. He can tell when kids believe in him and when they don't. He can coddle a crier to give a little smile for the camera. And he always has a diplomatic response when a child asks for a toy: "Santa will see what he can do."

He occasionally fields some unusual requests.

A pink feather? "Santa will see what he can do."

A personal Web page? "Santa will see what he can do."

A particle accelerator? You get the idea.

But sometimes, when kids ask for something more difficult, Santa doesn't always know what to say.

While Xboxes and Lego sets are by far the most popular items on kids' wish lists, many mall Santas will occasionally get heart-wrenching requests from the tykes who visit them. These are the kinds of things you can't buy in a store or load onto a sleigh: divorced parents to reunite; a lost pet to be returned; a cure for a relative's illness.

It's their familiarity and authority, their patience and kindness, mall Santas say, that help children who are going through hard times open up to them. And like any good therapist, they simply listen.

"Every single Santa, without a doubt, is hearing these requests," said Ruth Rosenquist, spokeswoman for the Noerr Programs, which trains and places Santas and other seasonal mascots in malls around the country, including Southdale.

"Santa is in one of those positions of unconditional acceptance for a child," she said. "For very young children, there are very few adults who listen and hear them unconditionally in their lives. When they go to visit Santa, that's a source of hope."

The hardest conversations with kids are the ones Santas remember forever. A popular thread on Reddit each year at this time asks mall Santas to share their most memorable stories. Between getting peed on and being asked for stuffed animals, there are inevitably tales about kids asking for help with their home and family situations.

After the Bosnian War in the 1990s, a little boy asked the Southdale Santa to get his relatives out of that country and brought over to the United States. Many Santas have been asked to bring deployed parents home from war.

"It's hard to hear," said the Mall of America Santa, who, like the Southdale Santa, refused to give his real name in order to perpetuate the myth. He said his knack for listening is what has helped him comfort troubled kids during his 12 years as a mall Santa.

"If I didn't love it, I'd shave and get a haircut and just be an old guy," he said.

The Mall of America Santa will never forget the young boy who asked for shoes for his sister, who was about to start middle school. The family couldn't afford a new pair.

Wiping away tears from behind his round spectacles, he said the boy's generosity is what stuck with him years later.

"He didn't want anything for himself," he sniffled.

At Miller Hill Mall in Duluth, Brian Thiry has played Santa for five years. He said some of the hardest requests he has gotten have been on behalf of parents. Sure, he's been asked for dishwashers and garbage disposals. But he's also been asked to cure a parent's cancer.

"Obviously, I'm not God or Jesus," he said. "Then I wonder: Do the kids blame Santa if nothing happens?"

Not necessarily, says Michael Troy, a clinical psychologist and medical director of behavioral health services at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.

"Something can be positive and a really lovely touching moment without it having to fix the problem or change what's hard," he said.

Empathy, but no promises

For children who request something that Santa (or can't deliver, the interaction provides them with something else: a chance to organize their thoughts, get something off their chest, be heard.

"If it's handled in a reasonable way, then a moment of empathy and sharing and being able to express feelings can be a good thing, and it has value in the moment," Troy said.

When Santas or mall staffers can help, they will. They have bought meals for hungry children, and have chipped in toward a laptop for a young job seeker, Rosenquist said.

Santa University

At Santa University, a summer training program for Noerr's Santas, a class on frequently asked questions addresses some of the more heart-wrenching ones that come up. Rosenquist said Santas are advised to be positive and encouraging, but never to promise anything that isn't possible.

Things were lighter at Southdale's Santa set one recent morning.

Mya Carranza, 8, intended to ask for a little sister for Christmas. But before she got to him, her mom gave her a dose of reality.

"Not enough time to cook," said Amy Trainer, of Eagan. "Maybe next Christmas."

Instead, Mya asked for a watercolor set.

Not only kids ask Santa for the intangibles.

Once, the Southdale Santa had a visit from a 99-year-old woman. It was a flirtatious encounter.

"You're my first Santa," she told him after her caretaker lifted her from a wheelchair onto his lap.

"Oh, I bet you say that to all the Santas," he replied.

What did she ask for? Santa recalled: "Just another year."

Sharyn Jackson • 612-673-4853