The page’s creases were deep as a child’s dreams, left that way by Brendan Clooney’s fingers.

Clooney, 7, wrote his Christmas list on that page, his wishes expressed in blocky pencil letters. He unfolded the page to study and share. Then folded it, to protect and preserve.

The constant handling gave the page thumbprints and wrinkles and deep, worn grooves. But among the smudges, Brendan’s pencil penmanship was still legible.

Lincoln Logs.

Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots.

Nintendo Wii.

Brendan shared the page’s contents with adults, preparing for the chance to recite them to Santa Claus.

Brendan’s mother, Lynne Clooney, and his brother Chip visited Santa Claus a few weeks ago at Shore Mall in Egg Harbor Township. The Clooneys met the Catonas — mom Chrissy and her children Christopher, 6, and Ava, who is “free” years old, as she pronounces it.

The group was first in line to meet Santa on this day. This is the tradition — for now, anyway, until age complicates things.

They visit this Santa Claus because “his beard is real,” Lynne Clooney said. “We saw Santa at parades and a few other places recently, but this is the real one.”

The beard

Richard “Bucky” Buxton grew his beard about 25 years ago. It used to be salt and pepper, and now it’s white.

Buxton, 70, lives in Mays Landing. A schoolmate gave him his nickname when he was 9, and he’s been Bucky ever since.

Buxton was in the armed services in the 1960s, then held jobs in banking, car repossession and construction before settling in with the South Jersey Transit Authority. He worked on the Atlantic City Expressway for 32 years, retiring as a toll booth plaza supervisor in 1996.

In retirement, he hunts and golfs and baby-sits his grandchildren.

His wife died in 2000. Bucky mourned and drifted for four years. Friends and family urged him to date. Eventually they set him up with a woman named Kathy, who now shares Bucky’s last name. They’ve been married for two years.

Buxton serves as a greeter Sundays at Shore Fellowship Church in Egg Harbor Township. And sometimes people look at him funny when he says hello, as if they’ve seen him somewhere else before.

The question of belief

As Santa Claus approached his chair, the Clooney and Catona children cheered and danced in the mall aisles.

This was the moment.

No more waiting. The group had spent the preceding hour playing Simon Says and sharing Auntie Anne’s Dutch Shakes. During the game of Simon Says, the mothers reflected on their own childhoods, and wondered how many more years the Santa tradition will continue.

“Chris already started asking me if Santa is real,” Chrissy Catona said of her 6-year-old. “I was in kindergarten when I figured it out. I asked my mother about it, and my younger brother heard the conversation from the other room. He was devastated. He bawled his eyes out.”

Lynne Clooney’s belief ran deeper. She grew up near the Ocean City Airport, and she always imagined that one of the airport’s red lights represented Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, leading Santa’s sleigh.

“This is probably the l-a-s-t y-e-a-r,” Lynne Clooney said, whispering the letters so her children couldn’t hear.

The man in red

Buxton has been appearing as Santa Claus for four years now.

His wife is involved with the local Salvation Army branch. The branch was filming a TV commercial and needed a Santa, so Bucky volunteered. That started it. Later, the mall needed a Santa — Kathy works at the Boscov’s adjacent to the Santa display.

Again, Bucky volunteered.

So Bucky Buxton invested in two red outfits. White gloves. Black shoes. Gold-rimmed glasses. He wears those items to elementary schools and nursing homes, to parties and fundraisers.

Portraying Santa Claus is a family tradition for the Buxtons.

“My father served as Santa Claus in Cocoa, Fla.,” Buxton said. “He got his picture in USA Today twice.”

So here Bucky — ahem, Santa — sits, waving to shoppers. Many of the shoppers ignore the man in red. They’re in a rush.

“Some people think they’re too cool to talk to Santa,” Buxton said. “I like catching people off-guard. The first time someone walks by they sort of ignore you, but eventually you might get a quick wave.”

Sometimes the adults stop to chat, wondering what happened to that Corvette or Jeep they asked for. Santa laughs, telling them it must have gone to the wrong place.

The list

The l-a-s-t y-e-a-r involved the children approaching Santa, telling him what they want for Christmas.

Christopher Catona: Beyblade battling spinning tops.

Ava Catona: Polly Pocket Princess.

Chip Clooney: Thomas the Tank Engine.

Brendan Clooney gave his crumpled, but treasured, list to Santa.

“Whoa!” Santa said, laughing when he saw the note. “You have quite a list here.”

Santa studied Brendan’s list, his bespectacled eyes scanning the 7-year-old’s letters.

“I’m out of this,” Santa said about one of the items.

Santa saved the note and handed Brendan a candy cane. Brendan and his brother sat on Santa’s knees, posing for a picture. Brendan’s fingers fidgeted with the candy cane, trying to find something to do now that the note was out of reach.

The real Santa?

This is Bucky’s busy season. There’s some money in serving as Santa Claus. Some pro bono work, too.

“This is something I enjoy to do, so if someone asks me to make an appearance, I don’t ask about the money,” he said.

For Bucky, the job continues year-round. Sometimes Bucky will be sitting at a restaurant and some wide-eyed, open-mouthed boy or girl will stare. Eventually, the child will ask Bucky if he’s Santa Claus. The real Santa Claus.

“Well, what do you think?” he’ll ask.

And the conversation will turn to reindeer and toy distribution and elves.

One time at Jo Ann’s Pizza and Restaurant in Mays Landing, that conversation continued for 45 minutes. The entire restaurant was listening. You could hear a pin drop, Bucky says. Afterward a woman came up to Bucky.

“I stopped believing in Santa a long time ago,” she told him. “I’m going home to put up my tree.”

Kathy Buxton talks about a time when Bucky encountered a girl with a disability. Touch was painful to the girl. She didn’t interact well with strangers. But Bucky spoke to the girl, and she reached up and grabbed Bucky’s white beard — a sign of closeness and trust. Kathy tears up when she tells that story.

“It’s hard to figure out where Bucky ends and Santa begins,” Kathy Buxton said.

The box

The photographer is late. Santa tells his visitors that she “got stuck in a snow bank.” In the meantime, parents take cell phone pictures of their children on Santa’s lap.

Some of the children cry. One girl bites her wrist, hiding her mouth, standing behind her older sister and clinging to her mother’s leg.

Beyond children, Santa also takes pictures with pets at Shore Mall now. Bucky lays a thick blanket over his legs for the dogs and cats. He says he hasn’t been peed on yet.

Throughout the evening, children and parents approach. Giovanny, Marisa, Brynn, Maddie. Santa speaks to the children, poses for pictures, and hands the boys and girls candy canes. He pulls the candy canes from an oversized box next to his chair.

Midway through Santa’s shift, if you glanced inside the box, you would see that atop the candy canes rests a crumpled sheet of legal paper covered in blocky pencil script.

Brendan Clooney’s Christmas list — now in the possession of Santa, the real one. He has the beard to prove it.

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