The reality of holiday shopping doesn't always match up with the Christmas carol images of old.

Images of "children laughing, people passing, meeting smile after smile."

On the contrary, the traffic can be murder, the crowds slightly unruly, and the parking, atrocious.

Then why was Ricky Hernandez smiling as he finished up his Christmas shopping Tuesday afternoon at Valley Plaza Mall? The Bakersfield barber and owner of 1st Class Cuts paid a little extra to let someone do the parking for him — and he looked supremely relaxed.

"Do I think it's convenient?" Hernandez asked as he stood at the valet podium, a mere 30 feet from the mall's main entrance, and handed his valet ticket to the parking attendant. "Yes, it's convenient, but they're monitoring my vehicle. That's why I do it."

Valley Plaza Mall is offering valet parking for Yuletide shoppers again this holiday season, and judging by the traffic, the demand for the service appeared to be fairly brisk Tuesday, especially for midday in midweek.

"When we go to San Francisco or Santa Barbara, if there's valet available, we valet," said Bakersfield resident Valerie Olson, who dropped off her Mercedes at a "self-park" valet lot closer to Macy's.

It's close to the entrance, Olson said, and if she's wearing heels — she called them "valet shoes" — it means not having to walk the distance back to her car on rough asphalt hauling armloads of packages.

"It's easy in, easy out," she said.

This year, Valley Plaza is offering two variations on the valet theme. At the main entrance, a traditional valet service takes your keys and parks the car for you. Then collects it when you get back. The service is $10, although a tip is customary.

East of the main valet lot is a second lot where shoppers do the parking. The cost is a little cheaper at eight bucks. All of it is operated by Los Angeles-based Parking Company of the West.

Parking attendant Ihsan Abd said the extra security of having someone with eyes on your vehicle is a big part of the draw for some customers, like Hernandez. But the the ease of vicinity is huge, too.

"They might have 20 packages," he said. "They don't want to carry them around the mall."

Some will drop them off in their car and head back in for Round 2, or lunch.

For those with a handicapped sticker, the service appears to be free. However, a spokesman at Parking Company of the West said he would need to check with Valley Plaza management before he could comment, and that return call never came.

A message left for the mall's general manager was likewise not returned Tuesday afternoon.

When Cathy Valdes and her mom, Donna Daniel, pulled into the valet lot looking for a regular public parking spot, Abd noticed their handicapped logo and provided valet service for free.

"I think it's great," Daniel said.

Valdes was pleased as well, saying she had a scary experience in the parking lot several years ago when she was robbed.

Joe Marcoux, a Vietnam-era Navy veteran, said his doctor told him walking is the best thing for his back, so he avoided the valet service Tuesday.

"The only place I've ever used valet service is in Las Vegas," he said, grinning.

The mall has nearly 5,000 parking spaces, according to its website. And during the busy Christmas season, it's not unusual to be relegated to some of the far corners of the mall's expansive parking acreage.

But for Hernandez, paying 10 bucks for extra protection for his Jeep Rubicon, and being able to park just steps from shopping nirvana was well worth it.

As the song says, "With the kids jingle belling, and everyone telling you be of good cheer," just keep in mind ...

"It's the most wonderful time of the year."

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

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