Mall Santa

I dreaded Mall Santa Season as a kid. My father, always eager to whip us up into (occasionally forced) holiday cheer, would float the query at some point during our 11th hour Christmas shopping for mom:

Who wants to see Santa?!?

This is one moment from childhood that I recall avidly praying to God. Please, please, please, let there be NO Santa. Or make the lines really long. Please make Dad forget. As a shy child (and a logical one), I thought it was creepy, scary, and weird to sit on the lap of a stranger for any reason… even if it meant a greater possibility of finding The Game of Simon under the tree. Also, I don’t think we Stockton kids actually “believed” for any significant stretch of time. Mom began holiday shopping just shy of Halloween and inexpertly hid wrapped presents in our usual hide-and-seek spots. And in order to remember what she wrapped for whom, mom’s slant-y cursive handwriting could be found on a tiny sticky note affixed to the underside of the presents. It was also hard to believe that my owl-shaped calculator was wrought by North Pole elves that shared mom’s zeal for coordinating wrapping papers. I think we fell for the feint until kindergarten, but then gifts that were signed “from Santa” were just a quaint nod to the tradition, and we openly thanked mom and dad for them. Until then, even as a six year old, I found all of the good-natured wheedling to believe insulting. It was a relief when we finally reached the arbitrary ages grownups deemed appropriate for disbelief, and threats of Santa Mall visiting finally ceased.

Recently, Bernie and I found ourselves at the tinsel-covered mall. As our window-shopping brought us closer and closer to Neiman Marcus, louder and louder became the wails of impatient and terrified children. The Santa Line: a queue forty strollers deep with 37% of the children in tears… and the remainder being asked by Starbuck’s-fueled adults, “Are you EXCITED?” I wanted to rescue all of them. Given the choice, I think any kid would prefer fries at the food court to sitting on the lap of a ridiculously dressed stranger while his frantic parents yell at him to replace his panicked tears with “SMILE!!!” But that’s me. Maybe some kids love this crap.

As a kid who feared forced Santa sitting, and then was annoyed by this childish and dishonest prank perpetuated by adults I normally liked, I became a parent who couldn’t muster enthusiasm for the myth. My boys have never really “believed.” Faced with actually lying to them, I chose not to. “Is Santa sorta like Spiderman?” asked three-year-old Brodie. Yup. Good comparison, kiddo. We still put out cookies (which they know Daddy eats), and write “from Santa” on gifts (which they know are from us), and Lee Family Christmas is still awesome. And no Santa line.

I’ve been holding my tongue (well, fingertips) when ALL CAPS Facebook statuses from agitated mommies implore parents like me to prevent kids like mine from “ruining” it for their innocents on the bus. Be assured that my boys have been schooled in this just as well as the Jewish kids (who must think Christian youth are a bit feeble-minded). Mine aren’t going to “ruin” it for anyone. Well, maybe a little. I never insisted they protect other parental lies as fiercely, and Teddy totally outed the tooth fairy on bus 698. Whoops… sorry, parents.

Dear friend April’s strategy is to tell her kids, “if you don’t believe, you don’t receive!” Knowing their parents aren’t actually going to withhold Christmas presents, this extends the myth for the sake of fun; it puts them into a collusion that is sort of adorable: we know it’s you, but we’ll pretend we don’t, and isn’t this Santa thing a hoot? But I’d love to ask the ALL CAPS mommies, when is the arbitrary age for appropriate disbelief? Is five too young? Is twelve too old? And if my kid debunking the myth at circle time seems cruel and unfair, what is the ideal way for small children to learn Santa isn’t real? And why is this belief so ALL CAPS important?

Obviously the ALL CAPS mommies have much fonder memories of forced Santa-sitting than I do. I’m sure they just want their own kiddos to experience the same magical Christmastime excitement they had, which somehow included bouncing on the lap of a jolly stranger. For the Lees, we’ve never relied on Santa to provide all of the excited anticipation of a Christmas morning. And though I think the creepy custom of Mall Santa could end without irreversibly damaging Christmas, I think we’d be missing something if abandoning the tradition meant no more pictures like this.


The hilarity of this photo is not lost on the lovely parents of these tortured kiddos.

There really cannot be too many of these. Ho ho ho!!

11 responses

  1. My daughter still takes my granddaughters to Mall Santa. They don’t cry – they are 4 and 6 after all – but they are always turned and looking up at the guy clearly thinking, “Who is this person and why am I sitting on his lap; and (perhaps) what is that smell?” Nothing against the Mall Santas of the world; it can’t be the most fun job ever, but the holiday season would roll merrily on without them. However, you are so right that pictures like this one would be missed! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and the rest of the Lee family!

  2. You make me laugh! You have a temperament like my little sister’s and therefore help me understand a little more about her childhood. I on the other hand loved all the hoopala associated with Christmas and had no doubt that he was indeed a mystical, magical figure. I’m still like that! I am one idealistic sucker. My mother, a proudly critical and analytical person, called me Pollyanna and my daughter (who has the same temperament as my little sister—is a 3rd year medical student at University of Vermont) calls me Sparky. Alas, I am in my 6th decade and I don’t think I will ever change.

    I’ve had to learn to enlarge my operating system to include a more analytical side; but when I was a kid, I was all-in for anything make believe. You’ve helped me better understand those sobbing children on Santa’s lap photos! Through her childhood, every Santa photo made of my daughter, Hayley, with Santa was the same: her leaning away, looking down through imaginary reading glasses, peering at Santa with a mixture of disdain, and “You’ve got to be kidding me.” She remembers going through the exercise to humor me, her mother, Sparkly, hoping to get what she wanted for Christmas.

    Your articles are my Saturday morning, stay in bed with an extra cup of tea, read. I just couldn’t resist reading this one early. Keep writing—I love your style!

    An Admiring Fan…Jane Ann

  3. This is Britt’s father responding…

    Very simply, I have absolutely no recollection of the Santa line at the mall or even my being interested in such a thing. However, because of Britt’s posting I think it appropriate that I make a public, remorseful apology to Britt for the obviously long lasting scarring that occurred and is the subject of her blog.

    However, I do remember the shopping trips to the mall for Britt, her sister (Paige) and brother (Patrick) and me to for their mother’s gifts. In the early years we started with a McDonalds breakfast (estimated inflation adjusted cost of $13.47) and completed the shopping/buying by noon. Fast forwarding to the college years and pre-married years, there was no way that Britt…or her siblings…would be out of bed early for a “traditional” breakfast. Therefore the shopping trip was changed to start with lunch (estimated inflation adjusted cost of $172.44 including Britt’s champagne, Paige’s cosmo and Patrick’s specialty beer). I have to add that the alcohol-infused shopping usually resulted in more creative shopping for their mother.

    Our plan is to be in Chestnut Hill for the Christmas celebration this year. I look forward to being at the mall with Britt and will do my best to keep her off Santa’s lap. But, after a bit of champagne at lunch….

    • It true, Dad… I don’t think we ever actually made it to the Santa line, being rather busy doing other fun things. It was just the *threat* of a Santa visit that terrified me.

      I can’t wait for you to get here, to engage in all of our fabulous Stockton Christmas traditions (last minute shopping, wine at lunch), and make new, Santa-lapless memories.


    • Mr. Stockton: My apologies for what sounds like a rough and expensive afternoon. As I get older, it’s interesting to me what the kids remember. The $4,000 trip to Disney? Barely. The time I left Child #2 at guitar lessons? That one I won’t hear the end of. You’re a great dad with loving kids. I hope the same will be said of me.

  4. Before Britt blogs about the fact that we never took her to Disneyland I acknowledge that Karen and I ARE responsible for THAT scarring. As each of you readers know , long ago Britt lost her shyness so wish me (and Santa) luck in keeping her off the Santa lap this year!

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