There are many ways of marking the start of the holiday season -- from Christmas jingles on the radio, to star-studded displays in store-front windows.
But at Stoneridge Shopping Center, it's when a towering faux pine tree sprouts up alongside knick-knack and jewelry kiosks in their Grand Court, atop red carpet that almost looks like a tree skirt from a second-floor mall perch.
And at the foot of the pine is a well-known, crimson-clad figure. He goes by a wide variety of names: Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, Sinterklaas in the Netherlands, Viejo Pascuero (Old Man Christmas) in Chile. At Stoneridge, though, he sticks with St. Nick.
After arriving at the shopping center Nov. 3, escorted in by the Pleasanton Police Department and Mercedes-Benz of Pleasanton, St. Nick will be at Stoneridge through Christmas Eve, one of hundreds of malls across the country to host the fellow.
Visiting a mall Santa is an annual tradition for many, a rite of passage for parents of young children.
"When I see their smiling faces, that's when I get so excited, ho-ho-ho," Stoneridge Santa says, adding, "Every visit is dramatic, ho-ho-ho."
Stoneridge Shopping Center has only been around for 38 years, but the legend of St. Nick stretches centuries back before then -- as Stoneridge Santa says, he is 1,700 years old.
According to the St. Nicholas Center, a site and traveling exhibit dedicated to educating the public on the original man, Nicholas was born in the third century in Patara, on the southern coast of what is now Turkey, to wealthy, devoutly Christian parents. They died in an epidemic while he was young, and Nicholas then decided to use his sizeable inheritance to aid the needy, sick and suffering.
Nicholas became the bishop of Myra as a young man, and would later go on to endure persecution, imprisonment and exile by the Roman Emperor Diocletian, according to the center. After his death in the year 343, he was elevated to sainthood, and Dec. 6, the anniversary of his death, is now celebrated as St. Nicholas Day.
He's the patron saint of a motley crew of characters, ranging from newlyweds and linen merchants to spinsters and pawnbrokers. A more unseemly crowd has crept onto the list as well, including robbers, thieves and murderers -- though notably he also protects those falsely accused or unjustly condemned.
But the story of Santa Claus stems from a few legends in respect to his role as protector of children, according to the St. Nicholas Center.
In one such tale, Nicholas came to the aid of a poor man and his three daughters: as the man was unable to afford a dowry, the daughters would likely not find husbands and so be forced into slavery. According to legend, Nicholas tossed bags of gold through an open window, which landed in stockings or shoes in front of the fire to dry. The girls were saved -- and thus was born the tradition of leaving stockings or shoes in front of the fire, ready to be filled with gifts.
Good St. Nick has taken many forms over the years and throughout the world. And while his commercialized rendition at Stoneridge may seem a far cry from the persecuted saint, the idea of a kindly figure protecting all children nevertheless remains alive and well through the bearded fellow sitting in the middle of a food court or atrium.
Santa's mall stint can be grueling. As Christmas Day approaches, Stoneridge Santa sees more and more children on any given day, hoisting them onto his lap, listening to their requests, and offering plentiful "Ho-ho-ho's."
However, it comes with its rewarding moments. Last year, he helped a young man propose.
"He came up before," Santa recalled, "and he says, 'I'm going to have my girlfriend sit beside you, and she doesn't want to do it, because she's embarrassed, and I'm going to sit on the other side. Ask her what she wants for Christmas, and then ask me. And then I'm going to say a wife.' And then I passed him the engagement ring, he got down on one knee and he proposed."
Sometimes, Santa says, it takes a few visits for children to warm up to him.
"Some of them don't know who I am yet, they're a little too young to understand," he said. "But I can usually warm them up after two or three visits, ho-ho-ho."
And sometimes, it's just a natural affinity for the man -- or not. On a chilly morning earlier this month, 11-month-old twins Kali and Reina Parmar made their Santa mall debut, with very distinct reactions.
"Kali was mesmerized," said the twins' godmother, Renee Boccasili. Reina, however, was less thrilled, and photos will recall her bawling unhappily.
Good St. Nick's favorite moments of the season?
"My favorite stories are what I call a 'Santa moment,'" he said. "That's when the children come and they realize 'holy mackerel, it's Santa' and they light up. Of all my moments, that is my favorite story."
Santa will be available for photos from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. through Sunday, and from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve. For more information or to purchase a "Santa Fast Pass," visit shopstoneridge.com.