WALNUT CREEK, Calif. - Maybe there's been too much milk and cookies. But there's no denying the fact - Santa's getting fatter.
His tailor says so.
Without alterations, the jolly old elf can't get his bowl full of jelly into his traditional Christmas suit, even minus the pillows, according to Jenny Zink.
For 27 years, Zink has been turning out Santa suits at the Santa school operated by Western Staff Services, a Walnut Creek, Calif., temporary employment company that provides more than 3,000 St. Nicks annually in the U.S., the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.
The original 1948 pattern, which Western keeps in a safe, has expanded, inch by inch. Beginning in the 1970s, Zink said, seamstresses started letting out the waist and lengthening the jacket.
Santa steadily put on weight and even got taller in the '80s.
"And here in the '90s we've had one more sizing," said Zink. "The suits have always been big. But it's a question of how big. Extra large isn't always big enough and now we're getting calls for extra extra large."
One of Western's most popular Bay Area Santas sheepishly admitted he seems to need a bigger red suit every Christmas.
Buster Killion, who'll park his sleigh at the Sun Valley Mall in Concord, Calif., for the holidays, has gained 45 pounds in the six years he has been Santa.
"When I started I was 260 pounds and needed a pillow," the 51-year-old Wells Fargo Bank computer engineer and grandfather said. "Now I weigh 305 pounds, my belt size is 50 and when Western calls and tells me not to forget my pillow, I say `What pillow?"'
Killion, who bleaches his dark beard each year in December, has ample reason for become rounder. Kids often bring him cookies before listing their "I wants" and, there are grownups like the elderly lady in Concord last year who would sit in the mall and watch him every day.
"Whenever there was a lull in the line of children, she'd come up quietly, push a little wrapped chocolate candy into my hand and then go back to her bench and watch me some more," Killion said.
Another fellow who tips the scales at 300 pounds is practicing his ho ho ho's in Western's Santa school this pre-holiday season along with classmates 18 to 75 years old. Some of the candidates also are over 6 feet tall, which means letting down the Claus cuffs.
"The sizing has changed but it's still the same traditional suit," Zink said.
She wouldn't dream of putting Santa on a fat-free diet to fit into his clothes. After all, Santa is not alone. The National Center for Health Statistics says the number of Americans who are overweight has been growing since the 1960s.
"We like him well-rounded and cuddly," said Zink who specializes in training Santas with proper procedures and answers before letting them talk to children.
Racks full of red velveteen outfits trimmed with white faux fur hang in neat rows all year long in a special Santa warehouse until the big night. There are also white gloves, round spectacles and imported synthetic wigs and beards waiting to take the spotlight.
According to Elaina Medina, a Western spokeswoman, a Santa suit weighs 6 1/2 pounds and costs nearly $400.
"But they last a couple of years, depending on how many little lap accidents there are," Medina said.
Parents waiting in line should realize there has been such an accident when old St. Nick excuses himself to go see the reindeer.