Ralphie, the pudgeball hero of the cable TV holiday classic A Christmas Story, once offered the ultimate advice for those visiting mall Santas. "Let's face it, most of us are scoffers," he said. "But moments before zero hour, it [does] not pay to take chances." And he's right: Why put your odds of finding an Xbox 360 under the tree on the line? But really, which of these strangers—whom we pay to poke, pat and coddle our children—are magical enough to warrant our hard-earned holiday cash? Of course, any Santa worth his beard refuses to talk about life outside his seasonal temp job. So instead, with children big and small in mind, we've braved the laps, sniffed the breath and offered our wishes to various local Santas and one bizarre holiday bear in a weeklong Santalogical review.

2 pm Sunday, Dec. 4—Portland Spirit Cinnamon Bear Cruise

Cinnamon Bear, an obscure holiday icon that once lived in Portland's Meier & Frank store, now resides in a psychedelic world aboard the Portland Spirit, surrounded by grinning elves, sexy pink fairies and Captain Taffy the Pirate King, whose friendliness is tested if you take too long snapping a picture. Snapshots are taken of the Bear with all the children on board, and more than 200 people are on the cruise. Oops—missed my photo op while on the ship's deck drinking bourbon. After a bit of coaxing, the ship's authority, Raggedy Ann, relents and the Bear reemerges just for me (just like my dreams). I jump on his lap while salivating children gather round. They are told to stand back, but I invite them up with me for the photo, which dramatically extends my lap time. Cinnamon Bear is not nearly as soft as he looks, but his patience with a 200-pound man atop his knee is infinite.

Price: $24, river cruise, holiday nibbles and photo ($18 for kids 1-12).

Special Talent: Hypnotizing hordes of children.

Believability Factor: About as believable as a Disneyland character.

7 pm Tuesday, Dec. 6Lloyd Center

Santa sees all, and omniscience of that magnitude is scary when you're three feet away from the fat man. The kid before me knew it, and he freaked out. Santa tells me I'm a "good big boy," when he sees me sharing candy. He gives me a sucker. He's a jolly one for a slow night, especially given that he's Lloyd Center's only Santa, working all day seven days a week. His breath is pepperminterrific. He urges me onto his lap, even managing a slight knee bounce under my heavy frame.

Price: $12.99 with 5-by-7 photo.

Special Talent: Real beard, radar-like perception of naughty and nice.

Believability Factor: Moderate. He has the voice and build of the real deal, but didn't care what the kids wanted for Xmas.

2 pm Wednesday, Dec. 7Clackamas Town Center

This suburban shopping center has two Santas, and both are five-year veterans at the mall, which requires Santa to work until 10 pm. On an average December day, these merry men see as many as 1,000 children, and this naturally bearded Kringle has dealt with the likes of me before. He seats me on a pad next to him, says,"Now it's my turn," and then takes his place on my lap with a mighty "Ho ho ho." Again, Santa does not seem to care to know what I want for Christmas. But the children in line take to him immediately, and he makes sure to walk around and wave to everyone in line.

Price: $10.99 with 5-by-7 photo.

Special Talent: Jollier than your average mall Santa. His shiny suit is the pinnacle of North Pole fashion.

Believability Factor: High, although he is surrounded by cheesy robot reindeer.

11:30 am Thursday, Dec. 8—Pioneer Place

There is no line, and Santa's bored, walking around the mall's atrium spreading joy. He is excited when I come for a picture, and he pats his comfy, well-worn lap and asks me, "So, do you still want that fire truck?" Because it's slow, he's very talkative. He says he gets about 20 "big kids" like me a day, usually people taking pictures for their parents or girlfriends. "Last year, somebody proposed to his girlfriend on my lap," he says. "When they came back this year, she was expecting."

Price: $10.99 with 5-by-7 photo.

Special Talent: Yarn-spinning, the power to grant fertility.

Believability Factor: High, especially with that pillowy lap.

Noon, Thursday, Dec. 8Meier & Frank Santaland

Children ages 2 and 3 are the most terrified bunch in Santaland—and viewing the Meier & Frank monorail, you can see why. Kids pile into the mini-train, and their tiny fingers poke out of the chicken wire windows, their faces checkered as they press against the wires, nearly 20 feet above the floor. It resembles a North Pole labor camp, until you get to the man himself. A 20-year veteran of the store, this Santa's the only one to ask what I want for Christmas. "Peace on Earth," I say. "I'll see what I can do," he says. "We seem to be moving away from that, don't we?" Ho-ho-holy reality check.

Price: $13.95 with 5-by-7 photo.

Special Talent: The whole package—costume, voice, age, girth.

Believability: This man has truly become Santa Claus.

Portland Spirit Cinnamon Bear Cruise, Southwest Front Avenue at Salmon Street, 224-3900, cinammonbearcruise.com. Two-hour cruises at 10 am and 2 pm Saturday-Sunday, Dec. 17-18, and Saturday, Dec. 24. Lloyd Center, Northeast 13th Avenue and Multnomah Street, 282-2511. Clackamas Town Center, 12000 SE 82nd Ave., 653-6913. Pioneer Place, 700 SW 5th Ave., 228-5800. Meier & Frank Santaland, 621 SW 5th Ave., 10th floor, 241-3900.