FORT MCPHERSON, Ga. -- You've sliced the turkey and raked the leaves, and just one check of the calendar reveals it's time to trim the tree.

The weather is changing and snow may soon fall. Kids have started making their Christmas lists, which will surely be long, some forgetting they haven't been good at all.

It's OK because Santa and the elves know. Heck, they see every temper tantrum that explodes in the school hallway, Post Exchange and mall.

What you may not know is that a local Santa, disguised as a U.S. Army Forces Command, G-1, administrative assistant in a cubical down the hall, has spent most of the year taking notes.

Dale Michael Cox, also known as "Santa Dale," is the jolly St. Nicolas covering Fort McPherson, Fort Gillem and the surrounding communities.

Most boys grow up wanting to be doctors, lawyers, Evel Knievel or an Indian chief. Very few think about growing up to be Santa Claus.

For Cox, the red-suit responsibilities came about after an acting stint.

As a young adult, Cox took up acting in community and professional theaters in Tennessee and Atlanta, an endeavor that lasted nearly 30. He was a semi-professional actor until a role changed his life.

"I grew a beard for a stage role and when the play was over, my family and friends forbade me from shaving it off. When it turned gray, people started calling me Santa," Cox said.

Later, he performed as Santa in short films with student actors from Georgia State University. It's been three years since "Santa Dale" came on scene professionally.

Adjusting his suspenders, he leans back into the seat as if it were a throne and begins telling the story of his journey to the virtual North Pole.

"During the summer of 2006, I found a Web site called Santa Atlanta," Cox said. Santa Atlanta, a Santa-for-hire company that has about 30 real-beard red-suiters, places Santas at special events and private parties.

Education has proven as important to Santas as to everyone else. At age 53, Cox attended the International University of Santa Claus in Duluth.

He said training and preparation helps him avoid embarrassing situations. Cox said the class was conducted by an old-time, experienced Santa, Tim Connaghan, and that the Clauses in attendance are promoted as direct descendants of Santa. "Santa Tim" is featured annually on the front cover of a major department store Christmas catalog.

Cox said the classes cover every aspect of being a professional Santa, from dealing with children to dealing with inconsiderate parents. Instructors teach what to expect as a mall Santa regarding contracts, suits and insurance; how to talk with children; what to say and what not to say; what to do with your hands; hair care; the history of Santa Claus and how the modern-day Santa evolved from stories, legends and cultures.

"There's a lot more to portraying Santa Claus than the average person would ever think about," said Cox, "but the training leaves you well prepared for the actual thing. The hardest is the very first 'live' session as Santa."

Children tend to ask "Santa Dale" the darndest things. The most outrageous Christmas wishes he's heard this year were from children who ask for live animals, such as a pony or a puppy. "I tell them that Santa doesn't deliver live animals; they will have to ask their parents," explained the jelly belly Claus.

"One little boy brought me a list of 21 items he wanted. His parents told him he had to pare the list down to 10 items, but he secretly kept it at 21. He told me he knew that I would deliver all 21."

As much as adults pretend to be above the fairy tale, they still enjoy sitting on Santa's lap.

While the children are asking for livestock, parents have a different request. "Jokingly, one lady jumped on my lap and asked for a new house. Another lady, at a private party, jumped in my lap and asked for a new husband. That was sort of uncomfortable because her current husband was standing 10 feet away, glaring at us," Santa chuckled. "I quickly gave her my line about how Santa couldn't bring live animals from the North Pole and she needed to ask her parents."

While Santa is primarily here during the holiday season to answer shoppers' questions, pose for scrapbook photos and make a list of wishes, the job of listening has a good return on the investment.

With blushing-red cheeks, the 300-plus-pound Cox said, "Spreading joy and seeing the smiles on faces of children make the visits worthwhile."

The job also has pitfalls, besides the candy-cane sticky fingers and wet bottoms. "People pulling my beard is a challenge to the job. I tell them it's really real." Cox proves his statement by pulling on his bristly-white whiskers.

This year, parents are dealing with a failing economy and limited funds to lavish their children, but Cox had a wish of his own for young people: "Be the best humans they can be; be unselfish all their lives and never experience pain, suffering or poverty."