I’ve struggled with the concept of Santa Claus and how to explain him to my two children ever since my daughter, Kara, was two-and-a-half and could understand the story. To be honest, it felt wrong to tell her what was basically a lie. Sure, I know the spirit of Santa is real, but the whole legend of the bearded fat man in the red suit who comes down our chimney and gives us (and everyone else around the world) presents every year is just plain not true. But I’m an American—I grew up loving Santa and enjoying the tradition. And with more than a little guilt, I told Kara the story. The first time I’ve explained something to her that I knew wasn’t true. It made me feel creepy.
So, I’m biased against the whole Santa thing. I go into it with a negative attitude every year. This year, however, I’m also both excited and nervous. Excited because Kara is now four-and-a-half and old enough to be very excited herself. And nervous because she is also smart enough to begin to question the multitude of holes in the Santa story. I’m afraid she’s going to ask me questions that I don’t want to answer, because they will force me to either tell more lies (to explain why the Santa at the mall looks different than the Santa at the grocery store, for example) or to tell the truth. I don’t want to tell her more lies. I feel guilty enough about the one I already told her. But I also don’t want her to know the truth, yet. Believing in Santa is part of the magic of childhood, after all.
Nevertheless, the other day the kids and I bit the bullet, and headed to the mall because Kara wanted to tell the big man what she wants for Christmas. I was pretty interested in knowing myself, because her Christmas list is both fluid and extensive— it has gone through many changes and additions (mostly additions) over the last few months. Since it was early in December and a Tuesday, I doubted there would be a huge crowd. Weekends right before Christmas are probably when Santa gets really bombarded, I reasoned. I had everything planned perfectly. We’d get to the mall around noon, have lunch, see Santa, then play in the mall play area for a little bit, and head home 1:30-ish, in plenty of time for afternoon naps. What a fun and simple Christmas outing!
Things started going wrong soon after we arrived at the mall. Since we weren’t very hungry yet, we decided to see Santa first, before lunch and so we rushed right over to Santa’s throne in the center of the mall. The throne sat in front of an enormous cylindrical display of Christmas decorations, a monstrosity that was so tall, it stretched up past the mall’s second floor to the ceiling.
The line of children waiting to see Santa wrapped almost completely around the display. Someone had roped off the end of the line and posted a sign that read that Santa was about to take his lunch break and he would be back sometime between 1:30 and 1:40. I assumed that meant no one new could join the line. And here’s where I made my first mistake. I should have been pushier and asked if we could squeeze in at the end of the line, but I was in flexible mom mode, not pushy mom mode. We’ll just do things in a little different order, I thought, play first, then eat lunch, then see Santa at 1:30. We’d be a tad late for nap time, but what the heck, it’s Christmas after all, and not every day that the kids get to see Santa.
So we played and ate and showed up back at the Santa throne right on the dot of 1:30—my second mistake! Apparently the smart parents realized that there might be quite a few other children who’d want to see Santa right after lunch, and they showed up before 1:30. By the time we arrived, the line was even longer than the one we’d seen originally. And we were at the end of it. Still, I thought, it couldn’t be too much time until it was our turn. After all, how long could it possibly take for each kid to sit on Santa’s lap, tell him what he/she wants for Christmas, and pose for a quick picture—30 seconds per kid, right? Even if there were 20 kids ahead of us (it was a little hard to tell since there were clusters of strollers and extra adults with each child) that’d only be a 10-minute wait or so—15 minutes maximum.
This entirely incorrect estimate of our wait to come, was my biggest mistake of all.
Because, 15 minutes later we had only advanced about 5 feet. The line was moving at slower than a snail’s pace and I had no idea what was taking so long, since we couldn’t see Santa from where we were standing. I was also too distracted by the monumental task of keeping my two children occupied while we waited, to spend a lot of time worrying about why the line was moving so slowly. Both kids were really enjoying swinging the velvet covered barrier ropes that were strung between flimsy aluminum poles delineating the Santa waiting area. I was sure the whole thing would come crashing down any second. My two-year-old, Kyle, was testing the limits of the phrase “stay close” by inching further and further away from me, all the while looking to make sure I was watching, his face lit up with that mischievous “what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it?” look. My emergency stash of snacks, books, and toys was getting dangerously low, and we still weren’t anywhere near the front of the line. Plus Kara was chattering away about Santa, and I was still nervous that she’d ask some probing question concerning his reality, that I wouldn’t know how to answer. It wasn’t exactly a relaxing place to be.
Forty-five minutes later we were still waiting. At this point, I probably should have just cut our losses, dealt with the tears and disappointment, and bailed. But I had succumbed to that compulsion that overtakes unwise capitalists after they’ve invested in a business venture that quickly shows itself to be obviously doomed—when you’ve put so much into something, you feel you must keep at it in the hopes things will eventually turn around. We had already wasted precious time and energy in this Santa quest, darn it, and we were going to see it through!
My sister and one-year-old niece, Mia, had met us at the mall to hang out while we waited, and to watch Kara and Kyle sit on Santa’s lap. Eventually, as the minutes crept by and the line stalled, my sister went up to the head of the line on a reconnaissance mission and came back with the following report.
“I know why it is taking so long,” she said.
“Why?” I asked.
Apparently each child’s parent got the chance to preview the Santa picture on a computer screen next to the camera and could then accept or reject it. Since, of course, everyone wanted the perfect Santa picture, the parents were asking Santa’s assistants, the “elves”, to take picture after picture until they got just the right one.
I looked down at Kara and Kyle. Their clothes basically matched and their hair had been brushed, and of course they looked adorable to me, but I hadn’t exactly made any extra effort to get them all dolled up for this picture. Then I looked around at the other people in line. Most of the kids were wearing special Christmas outfits—red velvet dresses, little green coveralls, Santa hats of their own. The moms at the front of the line were carefully brushing their children’s hair and checking them over to make sure they would look flawless for this apparently supremely important Santa Claus picture. I looked back at my two and realized that we must have come to the wrong place. We wanted to talk to Santa and didn’t care much about the silly picture. But by the time I came to the realization that most everyone else had a different (and much more time-consuming) reason for meeting Santa, we had rounded the corner and could actually see him. Both Kara and Kyle started jumping up and down with excitement—there he was! We couldn’t turn back now.
Kyle, however, despite his initial joy at finally seeing Santa, had had just about enough of this waiting in line business. He started to fuss and cry and try to run away, in earnest this time. I looked at my watch and realized that it was now 2:45, a time when he’d normally be home napping. I picked him up and pointed to our goal.
“See, Kyle? There’s Santa Claus! Do you want to sit on his lap?”
“Yesss,” he said seriously.
“Okay,” I said. “We just have to wait until it’s our turn.”
I started singing Christmas Carols under my breath to keep him occupied. He humored me by singing along here and there, but I could tell he wouldn’t be able to last much longer. Kara meanwhile had made a friend—a little girl a couple of kids behind us, and they were having a very intense conversation about what they planned to say to Santa once it was their turn. I listened for a little bit, hoping Kara wouldn’t mention anything embarrassing, then tuned them out thankful that she was occupied.
We inched on. My sister and Mia had long since left, but I couldn’t give up. The end to our ordeal was in sight.
Finally, we were next! We eagerly watched as the kids ahead of us sat on the big guy’s lap and then took that vital, all-important picture.
“We’re next, Mommy, right?” asked Kara.
“Yup,” I answered. “It’s almost our turn!”
“Danta Claus!” said Kyle. “Yap!”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s almost time to sit on Santa’s lap!”
At long last, the parents of the kids ahead of us were satisfied with their picture and it was our turn. Except…instead of letting us into the fenced off Santa lap-sitting, picture-taking area, one of the elves came up to talk to me at the front of the line. It seemed that it was time for a shift change and this Santa was done for the day. We’d only have to wait five more minutes while they walked this Santa out and then brought the new one in.
“But we’ve been waiting for over an hour!” I said, pushy mom starting to rear her assertive head. Then I looked behind me and realized that everyone had been waiting for over an hour.
“Okay,” I sighed, and the elves led Santa away.
“Where’s Santa going?” asked Kara, sounding worried.
“Danta Claus!” said Kyle, starting to cry.
“It’s okay,” I replied, trying to sound reassuring, but inwardly about to lose it myself. “Santa’s just taking a little break. He’ll be back soon, and then it’ll be our turn.”
“How much longer?” asked Kara.
“Just five minutes,” I answered.
She went back to her friend and I went back to the Christmas Carols. Kyle fidgeted, and fussed, saying “Danta Claus, Danta Claus,” and I kept repeating that he’d be back soon. The kids in back of us also became more and more restless.
“This is a nightmare!” the woman behind me said.
I looked over to Kara to make sure that she was busy with her friend.
“I’m just worried that my daughter’s going to notice he’d suddenly a different person when he comes back,” I said, as quietly as possible.
She smiled sympathetically (and a little smugly). Since her child was a baby, she didn’t have to worry about such things. Well, la di da for her! I would never wait in that line for so long just so my baby, who didn’t even know who Santa was, could sit on his lap. But I guess anything for the picture.
After an eternity of hearing, “has it been five minutes yet, Mommy?” Santa returned. I looked at him carefully— he still had the red suit and white hair. The beard was a little shorter, but that was the only obvious difference. I watched Kara. Could she tell? I didn’t think so. She just seemed very excited. And so did Kyle. He wiggled enthusiastically in my arms. One of the elves asked me for the kids’ names and then whispered them to Santa. She opened the gate— we were in!
Kara and Kyle ran up to Santa, almost tripping over their feet in their excitement to sit on his lap. I was excited too. It was literally the moment we’d all been waiting for. I watched intently as Kara started telling him about what she wanted for Christmas, curious about which of the many items on her list she’d request.
“Say cheese!” said an elf, before Kara could get the words out.
The elf waved a stuffed reindeer in front of the kids so they’d turn toward her and smile. They looked a little taken aback—both were much more interested in Santa— but eventually and dutifully they turned and faced the camera. Flash! The first picture had been taken!
The elf motioned me over to the computer screen so I could give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. I had already sworn to myself during that interminable wait that no matter how hideous the photo, I was taking the first one. I would not be a hypocrite and make them take the picture over and over again until it was perfect—forcing those poor souls in line wait a second longer than they had to. I looked at the screen just as Kara was telling Santa what she wanted— trying to hear her and see the picture at the same time. I thought she said “stuffed animal” but I wasn’t sure.
The elf indicated the picture. “How ‘bout this one?” she asked.
On the screen I saw Santa, who looked great as usual; Kyle, who looked very serious; and Kara, who had a big overdone, squinty grin on her face.
“It’s perfect!” I announced.
The elf looked at me like I was crazy, but hit the “print” button anyway.
Only then did I realize I had made yet another mistake, because of course once the picture was accepted, our time with Santa was over. The kids were surprised and annoyed that they had to get down off his lap so soon (the minuscule candy cane that each received smoothed things over somewhat), and to his credit, Santa called them back to give them each one more hug. But that was it! An hour-and-a-half wait for less than 30 seconds of Santa time.
At least I could finally find out what Kara wanted.
“So, what did you ask Santa for?” I asked her, as I paid $10.99 for the cheapest picture package possible.
She was watching her line-buddy finally get her turn to sit on Santa’s lap and I was busy both keeping an eye on Kyle, and fumbling around in my purse for my credit card, so I couldn’t see her face. Finally, she turned, smiling playfully.
“Oh,” she said in a sing-song voice. “You’ll just have to wait and see on Christmas!”
*This essay was written 20 years ago! We never tried to see Santa at the mall again, because why would we? Santa can be found in lots of places! And I shudder to think how much longer those mall lines have become. The Santa photo has to be an even bigger deal now, right?