Step into my Santa boots and suit, and immediately you will be greeted with warm smiles and big hugs from children, teens and adults, even in Southern California

Santa Claus is a beacon of love, not a commercial icon. Don't believe me? Step into my Santa boots and suit, and immediately you will be greeted with warm smiles and big hugs from children, teens and adults, even in Southern California, which has a reputation for being materialistic.

After serving as a volunteer Santa in the Rogue Valley since 2003, I was invited by Microsoft to ho-ho-ho it up in the posh Century City Mall this season as part of a Picture Perfect Holiday promotion.

I was hesitant to accept the offer. This is the big time, in the big city. I wasn't concerned about my ability to do a good job. I think I am a very good Saint Nick. I was concerned about how I would feel about being "commercial" for the first time, although the compensation I receive for Santa'ing four hours a day barely covers my few expenses.

I also had, I'm embarrassed to say, some preconceived ideas about what Southern California people might be like. Would they be rich and snobby? Would the children be spoiled, all wanting ponies and other fantasy gifts?

But it turns out, the magic of Santa has no boundaries. Like in Ashland, the people I am meeting in Southern California are amazing. They have love in their hearts. I feel the spirit of Christmas everywhere I go.

With my full whiskers and wearing a red T-shirt, strangers come up to me in restaurants and at gas stations, and give me hugs and ask to have pictures taken with me. While I am driving busy Los Angeles freeways with my red hat on top my silver hair, passengers in zipping cars snap pictures of me. More miraculous, space opens when I need to change lanes. It is as if everyone who sees Santa is a long lost, very dear friend.

I don't mean to be corny, but this is life-changing stuff. Goodness and love are being poured on me from all directions, at all times, all because of the love that is associated with Santa.

Of course, I have had children on my lap who ask for big gifts: world peace, reconciled parents, a job for a loved one. The seriousness of our world impacts little ones, too. It is hard to hear about sickness or death in the family. I can see pain weighs on children and it could make for a heavy holiday. But I am buoyed by their belief that someone — Santa? — can bring joy to their lives.

About one in 10 children in L.A., just like in Ashland, requests these types of gifts. Most children ask for Legos, Wii and Xbox games, and more modest gifts of dolls, books and arts and crafts supplies.

Christmas has no doubt been overcommercialized, but I'm glad to report the true spirit of the holidays, at least as experienced by this Santa, is very much alive and well. I wish you all the love that has been poured on me this magical season.

Ed Taylor is an Ashland-based marketing expert who specializes in creating websites with high-search results. Since 2003, he has volunteered to play Santa at Ashland's holiday parade and local hotels and shops. This season, he is in Southern California having his photo taken with children at a Microsoft booth in a mall promoting photo-enhancing software.