I can’t remember exactly when it was, but, I was definitely well into adulthood when the creepiness of this song from a popular children’s Christmas program struck me. (“Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, Rankin Bass, 1970)
If you sit on my lap today
A kiss a toy is the price you'll pay
When you tell what you wish for --
In a whisper
Be prepared to pay
At this point in my life I was the parent of a young child and an early childhood educator. The implications of placing a child in a stranger’s lap and the suggestion, however light-hearted, that there should be some kind of quid pro quo going on there chilled me to my core.
As a child my grandmother took us downtown to Higbee’s, one of the old Cleveland department stores, to see Santa. We had lunch in the department store dining room “The Silver Grille” and visited the Twigbee Shop, a tiny store within-the-store set up just for children to do their Christmas shopping. We were wearing our Sunday best, school picture best, party clothes outfits.
And I hated it.
The part with Santa, I mean. I didn’t know him. I didn’t feel comfortable talking to him. He looked like a stranger, he smelled like a stranger, and I didn’t feel any sense of pleasure in the entire encounter. I have the picture somewhere. I look concerned, like someone who suspects they may be in a hostage situation.
Despite the anecdotal evidence that most small children take a dim view of being foisted upon brightly colored strangers for photo opportunities, the cultural push to continue this tradition remains strong. Even this year, in the face of COVID, many malls and other businesses and cultural groups are working to keep it going.
I guess I understand. When so many traditions we love are impossible right now, we want to do what we can to preserve something, anything, that feels meaningful. That’s why, despite my skepticism about Santa visits, I really liked this article by Angela Roberts in the Baltimore Sun.
It’s a clear, engaging account of what things will look like in a few area establishments who are hosting Santa this year. And it brought to mind something that perhaps we might preserve after this is all over. Why do children need to sit in Santa’s lap, anyway? This year may serve as a valuable lesson to us that the lap component is the least valuable piece of the equation.
It is not even remotely normal to start up a conversation with anyone you don’t know by sitting in their lap. Issues of bodily autonomy and consent go out the window every time we pretend this doesn’t matter for children. Surely the wonder and joy of seeing Santa and sharing a wish or two can be envisioned in a way where the child maintains a sense of personal space and control over the situation. I think we may see more of this arise this year.
Of course, you won’t get the same time-worn poses. But that could be a good thing.
After feeling inspired by the newspaper article I popped over to the website for the Mall in Columbia to see what they are offering in the way of Santa this year. The language and images are generic and you don’t get a good idea at all what the experience will be like. I don’t have a young child but I don’t find enough information here to inspire confidence or, even just to feel welcome. There’s also an opportunity to purchase a virtual video visit with Santa, but those look to be sold out.
I think that we have a wonderful opportunity this year to re-evaluate what is most essential in the childhood Santa visit. Times change. Our understanding of what is appropriate evolves. We have it in our power to foster the wonder and magic and anticipation of Christmas without sacrificing something deeply valuable within our children.