santa and two very terrified children.It’s that time of year! The stores are playing holiday music. Garlands, lights and decorations hang from ceilings. And Santa arrives in almost every major mall, ready to bring joy and laughter to parents and children of all ages.

Unless you’re terrified of him.

I have one picture of myself at age 3 with Santa. My face is blank and my hands are clenched in fists that scream, “why have you left me with this strange man mommy?” Santa even visited my house one year. My neighbour dressed up in red and white and brought over a sack of presents on Christmas Eve. I don’t think I moved an inch or made a noise. I was simply frozen with fear.

A few years later, my best friend Valerie convinced me to come with her to the mall to get a free candy cane from the jolly old elf himself.  When it came time to go up to his center court, my face grew hot and my heart threatened to burst from my chest.  So I hid behind an escalator while she greeted and chatted up Santa.

He was nice and gave her an extra candy cane just for me.

Now that it’s cold outside, we’ve been spending more time at the mall.  Each day that we go, I check out Santa’s Royal Court.  It’s only mid-December and already there are massive line ups filled with genuinely excited children, glum tweens who’d rather be shopping, teenagers excited for free candy and wonderfully cute babies — all waiting on pins and needles to sit on Santa’s lap.  Occasionally, there’s a piercing shriek from a baby (or two) who after standing in a boring line for hours, being stuck in uncomfortable formal clothes, having a well-intentioned parent brush their hair again, and again, and again, is sick of the strange elves making goofy-not-really-funny-faces, finally just loses it when placed upon a stranger’s lap.

Of course there are many wonderful smile-filled pictures and memories with the mall Santa. But sometimes it’s overkill, and parents desperate for a smiling photo will keep that baby howling on this stranger’s lap for far too long.  Every year I’m asked, why do parents do this to their children?

And every year I say that I honestly don’t know. Probably just because the parent has already paid the $20.00 for a digital picture package, went through the trouble of getting the baby dressed up, and just wants to have a lasting memory of how wonderfully magical Christmas can be for children.  So that by the time the baby is 4, they can all look back at the pictures and say, “see that’s you with Santa! Aren’t you excited for him to come this year?”  When the baby is 15, they can embarrass her and when the baby is 30, she can look back at how cute her parents were for making a Christmas keepsake.

Regardless of the intentions, there will always be at least one child who is seemingly traumatized by the event. Psychologists even believe that forcing a frightened child onto Santa’s lap teaches the child that they have no autonomy regarding the safety of their own body. That it sends mixed signals to children who are taught that strangers should not touch them where they don’t want to be touched — thereby diminishing a child’s future ability to say ‘no’ when faced with negative exposures such as pressure to have unwanted sex or drug use.

*blank stare*

Luckily, there are guides for children on how to talk to Santa and what to do if they are afraid when speaking to him, and helpful picture guides for parents to get that perfect holiday snap. And if you’re really too scared to see Santa in person, there’s even a letter writing program between the North Pole and Canada Post where you can write to Santa and receive a personalized letter back from him (really. My employer’s correspondence unit volunteered a few years ago to help answer some of the thousands of letters. They’ll even write back in different languages and reply to letters from around the world).

Children are often afraid of new people and situations. It all depends on their temperament, current mood and how responsive parents are to their child’s cues. No matter how often Eryn sees her friendly pediatrician, she always hollers and cries when he lays a hand on her. It’s the same with one of the Hubby’s uncles. It takes her hours to warm up to him, when it’s mere seconds to get her laughing with the Uncle’s son and wife.

There’s also the magic element. The mystique and mythology surrounding Santa and his role in Christmas is supported through songs, movies, books, cartoons, Coke and Leon’s commercials, and the good-natured threats of parents that Santa only brings presents to good little children.  Who wouldn’t be scared of a man capable of global travel in a 24 hour period? He’s invisible, impossible to catch in real life, yet his image is ubiquitous during an entire month — building up to a hope and promise that presents will be found under the tree.

To think that he actually leaves the North Pole to spend time with us mere mortals at the local mall on Saturdays from 9am-noon and again from 1pm-6pm, can be overwhelming. Especially if the Santa you come across looks nothing like the powerful, ineffable image found within a child’s imagination.

I think if I ever came across a real faerie, unicorn, or Raxacoricofallapatorian, I don’t think I’d jump for joy. I’d probably be frozen in absolute terror trying to wrap my mind around the idea that they really do exist — and wonder just how much of the stories and mythologies are true. Will my wish be granted, will I live forever, did Santa really see me steal a cookie last week?

So now that I have a baby who can be used as a convenient photo prop, I decided to treat my parents to a picture of Eryn with Santa. A few days ago I dressed her up in a new sweater, found her a nice red bow for her hair, threw on some red socks and the 30 year old shoes I wore in the original family Christmas photo.  Luckily we were second in line and waited only about 10 minutes. I preoccupied her with the sparkly lights and decorations. Then the pirate elves (pirates? why?) introduced her to the Royal Court and everyone clapped. I carried her over to Santa, placed her on his lap and slowly backed away.

She started shaking her head ‘no’ and her hyperventilating cry threatened to spill out. It’s reserved for when she’s truly terrified or in pain. The last time I heard it, she was sick with a cold, teething with molars and completely exhausted because we kept her up 2 hours past bedtime.  I didn’t even allow a single tear to form before I scooped her up in my arms and sat next to Santa on his oversized chair.

He looked at me and said, “Wow. You’re a very conscientious mother. Thank you.” and then, “Does she want a lollipop?”

After the picture was over and we walked away, Eryn waved happily.

A very nice keepsake indeed.

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