"I will not do a blue Santa or a risque Santa. Santa Claus is right up there with Heavenly Father in the minds of children. If I had a Santa working for me who became a buffoon, I would fire him."

So says Tony Zucca, a trainer of Santas, who runs a seasonal business out of his home called "Santa Claus's North Pole Headquarters." Who better to teach prospective Santas than a man who has been Santa in the annual Salt Lake City Santa Claus Parade for 23 years?Although a gentle man, Zucca speaks forcefully about his ability to carry on the tradition.

"I feel that I'm the best Santa in the valley. I turned down the Macy's Parade because it was in New York. But the Macy's people saw a videotape of me in the Salt Lake City Parade and wanted me to do theirs."

Now 55 years old, Zucca has been doing Santa for 30 years. While a teenager in the Navy, stationed in Long Beach, he was asked to play Santa at a party sponsored by an LDS ward - and he has been doing it ever since.

For several years, Zucca operated a janitorial service, then became a salesman for auto parts and sportswear. But every Christmas season he has done double duty as a Santa and trainer of Santas - with the expert help of his wife.

"Without Mrs. Santa we could just not do it!"

With his wife and his five kids he has performed at numerous parties and homes around the valley - as Santa, Mrs. Claus, four elves, and one toy soldier.

"I love being Santa because I can bring to it quality and the real meaning of Christmas."

So among other things, he teaches children that the candy cane represents the shepherd's crook and the crook on the staff helps bring back the strayed sheep to the flock - and that the candy cane represents the helping hand we should show at Christmas time.

He teaches children that a bow is placed on a present to remind us of the spirit of brotherhood of man. "The bow is tied - as mankind is tied - with the bonds of good will toward each other."

Sometimes Zucca carries an extra silver bell in his pocket. If there has been a tragedy in a family, or someone is really depressed, he gives them the bell.

"I tell them it is a bell of happiness. Whenever they need reassurance that they are not alone, all they need to do is ring this bell. It will warm their hearts and this will let them know everything is going to be all right."

Zucca has had many heartwarming experiences with children. Once he talked to a little boy who seemed to have a hard time speaking. Finally, he said, "What can Santa do for you?" The boy was silent for awhile - then said, "Bring my brother back!" His brother had died, so Zucca talked to him about religion and dying, and the boy seemed to feel better.

Afterward, his parents told Zucca that he had performed a miracle because the boy had not spoken one word since his brother died three years earlier.

There was a blind child Zucca especially remembers. He tried to help her "see" Santa by having her feel his suit ("velvet red like a warm fire"), his boots ("black like a fire that is out"), his fur ("like a white cloud"), and his nose ("like a cherry.")

When he was through, the little girl said, "You really love me - you're not like other Santas - they're your helpers, aren't they?"

Zucca is meticulous about the dress, behavior and performance of Santa Claus.

"All my Santas have a beard. They havereal boots - not spats over tennis shoes. The suit is made of red crushed velvet, with bells and a real leather belt.

"The only makeup used is a white stick for the eyebrows. We don't use fake eyebrows and white gloves! Kids need to see a real hand. It's more down to earth and doesn't scare them as much."

Zucca designed a special harness over the head to hold the beard in place.

"No North Pole Santa can be unmasked."

According to Zucca, "Children can tell a fake Santa. They say, `That's a fake santa, Mom - look at his boots!' It's important that Santa look real. Santa is a mediator between a child and his dream. You have to become Santa - not just another man in a red suit."

Last year Zucca had 55 Santas working at malls and parties, a number that has dropped to 15 this year. Because Zucca underwent open-heart surgery in June, he had to cut back on his commitments. He is handling the ZCMI Mall this year, but no other shopping centers.

He remains selective about the Santas he hires. "I will not hire transients or drinkers."

He looks for people first who love children. Then they must take his 3-hour class, read up on Santa, and develop the down-to-earth approach that children love.

"But you have to be fast on your seat. If you don't know the answer to a question, then Santa seems like a dummy."

Zucca teaches his class members about Mrs. Claus (Martha, Jessica, or Anwyn, depending on which story you accept) But "Santa calls her `Honey' because she is the sweetest thing at the North Pole!"

It's important to know the names of the reindeer and not to mistake Donder for Donner.

"It must be Donder and Blitzen, because those names are German for Thunder and Lightning."

And how does Santa get up and down the chimney? He just wears his magic ring on Christmas Eve - a ring Zucca wears - then he puts his ring on the first finger and when he touches his finger to the right side of his nose, down the chimney he goes. When he touches the left side - up the chimney he goes.

It is knowledge that every Santa needs - but no Santa has knowledge to compare with that of Tony Zucca. He has become Santa.