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WASHINGTON -- Why do kids believe a chubby guy in a flying sleigh can deliver joy across America?
Because their parents do.
A whopping 84 percent of grown-ups were once children who trusted in Santa's magic and lots cling to it still.
Things change rapidly these days, with toddlers wishing for iPads, grade schoolers emailing Christmas lists, and moms wrestling over bargain toys at midnight sales. Despite the pressures on the season's rituals, an Associated Press-GfK poll confirms families stick by old St. Nick.
"It's important for kids to have something to believe in," great-grandmother Wanda Smith of Norman, Okla., said.
And so they do.
Two-thirds of parents with kids under 18 say Santa's an important part of their celebrations. Moms especially have a soft spot for the man in red -- 71 percent say he's important; that's a big jump from 58 percent just five years ago.
His overall popularity is up slightly from an AP-AOL poll in 2006.
In these times of homes lost to foreclosure and parents sweating about their next paychecks, the poll shows Santa riding high with families both wealthy and poor.
In multicultural America, Father Christmas isn't just for Christians any more.
Three-fourths of non-Christian adults say they believed in Santa when they were children. And half feel he's important now.
Many non-Christian parents embrace Santa because they see Christmas serving as a secular as well as religious holiday in the United States, said Cyndy Scheibe, a developmental psychologist and associate professor at Ithaca College in New York.
"Santa Claus is more than someone who just comes and gives you a present. It's this whole spirit of giving and magic that you get to be a part of and celebrate," she said.
That's what keeps Santa going over the decades and across cultures, she said.
Even among Christians, there's tension about how big a role, if any, a jolly old elf deserves in the celebration of Christ's birth. Almost half of Americans polled said Santa detracts from the religious significance of Christmas more than he enhances it.
When she was growing up, Naomi Stenberg's fundamentalist Baptist parents didn't want her mixed up with Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or Halloween trick-or-treating.
"I didn't understand why everybody else got to believe in Santa, and me and my brother didn't," said Ms. Stenberg, 32, a stay-at-home mom in Minnesota. "I felt left out."
Her own three children have gotten the full Kris Kringle experience, but sometimes she feels ill equipped to handle tough queries from her youngest, 6-year-old Rylen. "She's been asking questions like how does Santa fit through the chimney," she said. "I don't know how to answer things like that."
Once again this year, the U.S. aerospace command in Colorado will help give updates on Santa's Christmas Eve travels. The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, is tasked with protecting North America's skies, alert for any attack by aircraft or missiles. Officials describe tracking Santa as a natural extension of its duties.
"His flight is something that we absolutely would track," said Lt. Cmdr. Bill Lewis, a NORAD spokesman. "Rudolph's nose helps us quite a bit with that. His nose puts off quite the heat signature."
Military forces have helped children track Santa and his reindeer since 1955, when a local ad giving a phone number to speak directly with him mistakenly directed children to a military defense operations center.
Officers on duty field kids' questions, Commander Lewis said. They also can call or email the command center for Santa's coordinates.
Last year, 1,250 military families, civilians, and local volunteers from around Colorado Springs took shifts at NORAD to field more than 80,000 calls and countless emails.
But as all good youngsters know, and volunteers remind them when they call, Santa won't stop by until they are sound asleep.
The Associated Press-GfK Poll was conducted Dec. 8-12 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications.
It involved phone interviews with 1,000 adults nationwide and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.