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In search of the perfect gift 

A 12-hour trek to Lenox, Phipps, Perimeter and the Mall of Georgia to find something money can't buy

The Vietnamese guy looks nothing like Santa Claus. Not that he's trying. Yet there he lounges: on Santa's perch, at the mouth of Macy's, snuggled into St. Nick's cushiony throne, his girlfriend at his side, in the predawn shadows of Lenox Square.

The retail altar of Atlanta has been stirring all night. It is Black Friday, 4:45 a.m.

Christmas, by God, is coming, and this decked-out hall of, of ... stuff is living and breathing and warm. A Christmas morning in its own right.

Presents are just beginning to make their magical migration from Santa's lap.

Just not this Santa's.

The Vietnamese guy is 21. His name's Charles. He's taking it easy in a pillowed, primo spot: Santa's.

"If he comes," he says, "we'll move."

He thinks I've come to shoo him. I haven't.

"Those are free," he says, motioning to a bin full of miniature, plastic, toboggan-cap-wearing penguins at his side. "Santa gives them out. Grab one for your kid."

Charles has been here since 3 a.m.

"A lot of deals," he says. "My cousin Jimmy just got a jacket at Guess for $65. It's an investment, yo. A leather bomber jacket for 65 dollars."

Sounds perfect, I tell him.

"It has two pockets on the inside," he says. "Sometimes there's only one pocket in there."

I mention that I'm here not to buy anything, but to browse the Christmas spirit and find the perfect gift. Or some semblance of some product sans pareil, some thing one might deem choicest, beyond compare and, all in all, saa-weeet. Or, say, something deserving of the syrupy Southern salute to unabashed adorableness that sounds more like sweight.

"Time," Santa Charles says. "Your time is precious."

And so, too, it turns out, is something I happen to spot next to him beneath a giant present prop. Charles and his girl have already spied it, opened it.

"It's really awesome," he says.

I don't know it now, but his gift to me — rather, the one he reveals before I depart Santa's sofa in search of something at once material and matchless — will, in the end, prove most perfect. The purest of all.

No, not a plastic penguin.

But it is something I can hold — and look at, ponder and, later, try and get in touch with the mall Santa himself about. It's a long shot, but I figure he might know something of the jewel I'd discovered in his roped-off, larger-than-life living room.

This gift is free and playful and generous and heartfelt and sad and, maybe, a little jarring when you get to the bottom of it.

Still, it is something I can put down and leave behind. Though I could pick it up and disappear with it, and no one would care. Or would they? If there is a Santa Claus they would. It's one of those precious things that makes me think there just might be.

But it's early and, who knows, maybe I can top this mystery gift.

One floor up, the Apple store has just opened. To cheers, ahhhs. I head the other way.

"Give Joyfully," a sign at Pottery Barn beckons.

"Give with Style," suggests Gap.

"Love the Present," Banana Republic declares.

"Merry Kicksmas," Foot Locker flaps (really), "and a Happy Shoe Year."

"Let it Dough. Let it Dough. Let it Dough," Auntie Anne's pretzels tries.

At half past 5, I see a sign at Ann Taylor — "Perfect Presents" — and head inside. When I say I'm looking for the perfect gift, a saleswoman hands me a card: "Today only! 40% Off." Another saleswoman directs me to a $168 cashmere scarf.

At a place called Lush — "Fresh Handmade Cosmetics" — there is pulsing, strip-clubby music and a clerk awash in it, telling me how the $199 "Wonderful Christmas Time" variety pack, a mother lode of moisturizers that includes the "Winter Bath Bomb" and the "Christmas Eve Bubble Bar," is, um, "perfect."

It is way better than their $20-cheaper "Merry Christmas Darling" collection with a "Sex Bomb Bath Bomb," a "Sex in the Shower Emotibomb," an "Mmm Melting Marshmallow Moment Bath Melt," some "Silky Underwear Dusting Powder" and a "Mrs. Whippy Bath Bomb."

"Receiving," the package says, "is definitely better than giving when the gift is this good."

I hit the Hickory Farms stand outside Tourneau.

"I'm trying to find the perfect gift."

"You've come to the right place," the Hickory Farms guy says.

"Show me the perfect gift."

"Who's it for?"

"I'm just looking for the perfect gift."

"This," he says, "is the perfect gift. It has a little bit of everything in it."

The Deluxe Smokehouse Collection.

"What makes it perfect?"

"It has everything that Hickory Farms has to offer. Different types of sausages and all the cheeses. ... It's 60 bucks."

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