Even though I am Jewish, and Santa never came to my home as a child, I still have quite a bit of reverence for jolly old St. Nick. Which is why I really look forward to his annual trip to Magic Beans (a tradition that goes back to 2006). When we first set out to recruit Santa, we were adamant that we find the real thing. And we did. Our Santa is legit.
But not all kids are happy to see Santa, real or not. Being dropped into the lap of a strange, large man with a big beard and a deep “ho-ho-ho” scares the pants off some children, resulting in the not-so-unusual photo of a smiley Santa with a hysterical child.
Recently, a mom bringing her kids to visit Santa said to me, “If someone told me I was going to go meet God, I’d be scared half to death too. That’s what this is like for them.” Makes sense, if you think about it.
After several years of watching children react to Santa, I’ve seen a lot of tactics that worked well, and a few that didn’t. I thought it might be helpful to compile a list of 10 tips for stacking the odds in favor of a good Santa experience. (Some of this same advice would apply to any sort of close encounter with a costumed character, but the tradition of lap-sitting with Santa adds a level of physical closeness that contributes considerably to the freak-out factor.)
1. Consider the age and temperament of your children before deciding to go. Babies between the age of 9 months and 2 years are most likely to cry because stranger anxiety is peaking at that point. If your baby or toddler is nervous to be held by anyone she doesn’t know well, chances are she’s not going to like Santa too much. Similarly, if your child is painfully shy or generally fearful, things might not go smoothly.
2. Have realistic expectations. Ideally, your frightened child would have a few minutes to warm up to Santa. And a great Santa knows how to draw a child out of his shell. But that takes time, and Santa visits are usually relatively short. Be optimistic, but also be reasonable. Don’t force your child to do something that terrifies her, and have a backup plan if you don’t get that perfect holiday card picture.
3. Prepare in advance (for ages 1 and up). Look at pictures of Santa and talk about what will happen when you come to see him. Talk about what a kind man he is and downplay the whole naughty vs. nice thing. Be very positive and excited. Say things like, “I can’t wait to go see Santa and give him a big hug!”
4. Try to find a low-key Santa to visit. Long lines and big crowds will stress everyone out. Mall Santas are very busy on weekends, but are typically quieter on weekdays early in the season.
5. Make something for your child to give to Santa (for ages 2 and up). Whether it’s a letter or a sticker or a cookie, having a mission upon arrival helps to divert some of the jitters and provides a way for your child to feel like they’re talking to a friend instead of a stranger.
6. Be covert (babies and young toddlers only). Approach holding your child so that he can’t see Santa. Keep his eyes on you and put him down gently on Santa’s lap, talking to him and smiling the whole time. This doesn’t always work, but it is worth a try.
7. Bring a lovey. A lot of kids come in to see Santa clutching some sort of a comfort object, and it seems to really help them gather their courage. A familiar toy, stuffed animal or blankie helps to counterbalance how unfamiliar Santa feels, and it gives Santa a good place to start a conversation with the child.
8. Leverage siblings to help. Young babies (6 months or less) are almost always happy to go to Santa, and can convince an older, frightened sibling to be brave. Kids over the age of 5 are also usually beyond fear, and can cajole younger siblings to join them.
9. Get into the picture. No one said Santa photos are just for kids. Especially if your child is really nervous, go with her and take the picture together. Many kids seem most scared that their parents are “giving” them to Santa, maybe for good. If you stay close, that really helps them stay calm.
10. Keep a sense of humor. As with so many things, you can’t really control how this will go. If you get a picture of your child screaming, well, that’s truly a snapshot in time. Give it another year or two and you’ll see how things progress. I met so many parents who have been coming to see our Santa year after year, and who told me how much fun it is to watch how the pictures have changed over the years.