When one has spent the past 33 years working as Santa Claus, it isn't hard to notice how children have changed - especially when one loves kids as much as Gerald Marchello.

"I'm the type of individual who really loves people, and I love that image of Santa. Children have such a love for Santa and he needs to love them back."Marchello, a part-time Santa at the University Mall, isn't the typical "Santa's helper." In fact most kids might believe he is the "real" Santa. He holds them on his lap, hugs them, and proceeds to tell them how much he loves them.

"There's a real different feeling I get from them when I do this," he said. "As I hold them on my knee, some are so rigid it's like a stone on my lap, but when I hug them in, I feel them relax."

Working as Santa is one of Marchello's favorite things to do during Christmas. Who else would spend their vacation holding kids on their lap?

In real life, Marchello is a custodian for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Or maybe he's really Santa working as a custodian.

Marchello's career as St. Nick began at age 16 when he doubled for the jolly old elf at an event in Spring Glen, Carbon County. Now Marchello is so famous around town that he starts taking appointments in July.

With all his experience, he can tell you how kids' lists and toys have changed and not changed.

They still ask for dolls and trains, but those items are mixed with requests for electronic devices that weren't around 30 years ago, he said.

"When they ask for a fire truck, it is much, much different. Back then the bell dinged. Now the truck does everything a real fire engine does. Some even have remote controls."

Marchello said trains are still up there on the list because so many fathers like the trains.

The Barbie doll remains a favorite, and Cabbage Patch dolls are staying fairly strong. GI Joes are a big item, taking the place of previous requests for army men and cowboys and Indians in stand-up plastic figures.

One thing that has changed is the length of the lists, Marchello said. "Years ago there was a chance you would get all the things you hoped for and were not able to get during the year because your parents couldn't afford them. The lists were much longer."

In recent years, however, lists are shorter because children "understand that somewhere, someone has to pay for things. Most are asking for one to three items."

Many children just ask for a surprise from Santa, he said. "I let them know that Santa has to get the toys loaded on his sleigh and bring surprises if they don't tell me what they want early enough."

Marchello tells children who ask for Nintendo or other electronic games that he prefers they be at least 10 years old and makes them promise they will still do their homework and read some good books.

"I try to get the kids to take some responsibility for what they might get. That's the rule of life I guess. When girls ask for a doll, I ask them if they can put the cover over it so it won't get cold. Basically it's helping them to take a little better care of their things."

Some Santas promise children they will get what they ask for, but Marchello said he doesn't feel he can do that. "I give them positive reinforcement so they always have hope, but I leave it open so if they do not receive something it doesn't crush them.

"If I see some parents who might not be able to afford what their children are asking for, I'll ask them if it's all right if I bring something else."

Marchello frequently asks the children about a fight they had the night before or about the shoes they left out in the living room. He tells the children that they are still on his list, but they had better be careful. The children are somewhat surprised Santa knows those things, he said.

"They are coming up on your lap for a visit and it's my responsibility to help them and their parents in guiding the child in what he or she needs to do. They have to realize Christmas is not a free lunch."

Marchello said one change he is particularly grateful for is the invention of disposable diapers, because "you can't just push a child off your lap. You have to take it in stride.

"It used to be that diapers did not hold much and Santa's suit got pretty wet. Up until just last week, it had been three years since I had gotten wet. In the last six years diapers have been so much better."

Even with the hazards of the job, Marchello said he really enjoys being part of the Christmas season.

In an automated world, sometimes kids get the idea that Santa is a mechanical figure, but Marchello is determined to change that. When someone asks him if he is real he has them touch his arm to find out for themselves.

"Everyone is looking for the real Santa. Some learn a little earlier about Santa, but for the most part there is a very believing and caring population among the young people."