Street Life: MEXICO CITY - Might this be world's tackiest Christmas fair?

WHEN I PROMISED Dulce Maria, aged 5, that I would take her to see Father Christmas in the centre of Mexico City, I had no idea what I was getting into. I'd imagined queuing one afternoon at a grotto in a department store for a maximum of 30 minutes.

Instead, she cajoled me to set off after supper, when the lights over the six-lane thoroughfares were pulsing and whirling, threatening to set off epileptic attacks in hapless drivers such as me.

Santa Claus is a dubious character in such a devout Roman Catholic country as Mexico. A paper recently fulminated that, thanks to US commercialism, Santa Claus wears a plush furred suit instead of sacred vestments. The saintly bishop had permutated into "a fat clown with the chapped cheeks of a heavy beer drinker, the big stomach of a bon vivant, the nose of a drunk" and the "boots of a gendarme".

The article regretted that too many Mexican children do not direct letters for gifts to the Christ child any more but to this interloper from the North Pole. Santa Claus "usurped the name and the personality of St Nicholas", the piece concluded. "Let's not permit him to usurp the place of Christ."

In most of Latin America Santa is viewed as an oddball Yankee interventionist. Last week in Chile street children mugged a Santa who had been hired to deliver chocolates to an office party when he failed to dole any out to them. They stoned the 23-stone man and made off with his duffle bag.

But in Mexico City Santa is seen as a seasonal visitor, like birds that migrate from North America. Like them, he travels in flocks.

Alameda Plaza, in the heart of the capital, is transformed, with at least 250 Santas sitting in booths.

Each booth is a kitschy stage set, with a photographer poised to take snaps of the kids on the lap of the Laplander. Few are there to whisper a wish-list to the white-bearded one, because any presents will arrive on the twelfth day of Christmas, courtesy of the three kings. This mass rendezvous with Santa Claus has become a holiday highlight, to be captured in a souvenir photo from the big city and displayed all year.

There are booths for every taste: you can choose a Santa Claus flanked by Pokemon characters or the cast of the Toy Story sequel, a spaceship Santa with Martian helpers or a Pancho Villa-style Santa, criss-crossed with cartridges.

Queuing to see our man in red, Dulce Maria spurned Robot Santa and his mechanical steeds, maybe because he was too immaculate. She singled out a skinny fellow with a clutch of reindeer hooked up to his plastic sleigh. When she approached Santa, I zoomed in for the photo opportunity, but Maria's smile faded. Like small children the world over, when face to face with Santa Claus she dissolved into tears. Thus did tawdry reality end her Christmas fantasy.

By today there will not be a single Santa anywhere near the booths. Instead, there will be hundreds of trios of wise men from the east. Until 5 January these royals will sit patiently atop their horses, camels or elephants, taking orders for gifts and posing for pictures. Christmas will not wind down in Mexico City for another 10 days.