How to skip the Santa photo and still have merry memories

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Why are you getting that photo of your kid with Santa Claus?

Is it because you really want to, and your kid is so excited to see Santa? Or is it because you assume that’s just something everyone expects you’ll do, like sending out Christmas cards?

That thought crossed my mine as I stood in a lengthy line curled down a New Jersey boardwalk toward a short, candy-cane striped queue not long ago. Ocean winds whipped around our bundled three-year-olds and five-year-old, all doing an admirable job of keeping busy as my wife and I had promised them the wait wouldn’t be too long.

After all, at the end of this brown boarded road, Santa awaited in a lifeguard boat.

(Hey, when in Ocean City, N.J., right?)

An hour later, our kids were dangling off of us like a barrel full of monkeys, although my wife did an admirable job of entertaining them with impromptu games. Other parents in line could be overheard offering terse warnings of what was to happen if their kid didn’t behave.

The spirit of Christmas, everyone!

Our kids piled into the boat for the photo op with St. Nick. Hesitant? You bet.

And in one daughter’s case, it was just a “nope.” But we had waited that long, and Santa was ready (and, as far as Santa's go, he was pretty legit and jolly).

We got a photo… in the sense that a picture was taken by a camera. My son was all smiles - the fact that Santa somehow knew he wanted a remote control car surely impressed him - but Hallmark won’t be calling us anytime soon to use that photo in a greeting card. 

(By the way, I’m not posting it because I generally don’t want to share pics of the kids when they aren’t at their best, because they have no say in it. So imagine a smiling boy on Santa’s knee, a confused 3-year-old girl, and another 3-year-old who wants to abandon ship.)

Should we have skipped it?

It was worth a shot, since we had some time and hadn’t tried the year before. But it made me remind myself of something we all would do well to think: Just because it’s a tradition doesn’t mean it has to be your tradition. If you think it’s going to be an obligation, skip it! You’ve got a little kid! They don’t need to feel pressure to smile on command (or whatever other tradition they don’t seem to love), and you don’t need to feel like you’re living up to someone else’s standards.

The holiday season has enough pressure. Traditions shouldn’t add to it. They should make you feel like you’re adding to the enjoyment of your family.

Don’t add more on yourself if you think it’s likely that picture time with Santa will end in someone crying (either the baby or you.)

Or that sending out Christmas cards to every family you’ve encountered at a play date is going to stress you out.

Or that having a cookie decorating party with tons of families will overwhelm your holiday spirit and turn you into Scrooge. (In fact, we scaled ours down this year so it’s more manageable and we can enjoy it more!)

Like so many of you, the picture with Santa, a holiday staple as much as listening to Mariah Carey and complaining about parking, was not all we had hoped for that blustery November day. Sarah Von Bargen of “Yes and Yes” posted about how we all need to let ourselves be OK with this, and I couldn’t agree more. Is it a little frustrating in the moment? Of course! But it shouldn’t make you feel like you failed as a parent.

You are hoping for beautiful smiles full of merry delight when you get to the end of that line. Sometimes, you get the Grinch.

Have you thought about this: It is very strange that we tell children all year long to be wary of strangers, let alone hug and smile with themand then once a year we all go “Never mind! Go hug that bearded old man! Do whatever he says!”

But we do, don’t we?

Year after year, you see photos of kids with Santa fill your feed, and you start thinking “Yeah, we better get that done,” maybe without even thinking of whether you want to do it.

Like many of you, the post-Thanksgiving traditions include:

  1. Regretting how much you ate.

  2. Eating leftovers anyway.

  3. Getting a pic with Santa.

I can’t help you with the first two. Hell, I’m vegan, so I’m not the one who should give advice on eating turkey.

But that pic with Santa seems like it’s the first big tradition in a month full of them.

Maybe you luck out. Maybe the line is brief, your kid is well-rested and well-dressed, and you have an eyes-open, smile-adorned photo that’ll melt some hearts. Ho ho ho! I hope you cherish that moment and it's added a smile to your face this season.

If that’s not you, or if you are already dreading the potential tears and pleas and whining, I’m here to tell you that you do not have to take your kid to get a photo with Santa.

And if you do (because the holidays are nothing if not traditions, and those are hard to break), your kid isn’t obligated to be in a smiling photo

Are you really celebrating the season if you know you’ll need a few well-placed under-the-breath threats to make it happen? Are you setting up your baby or toddler for success? 

Part of it is knowing your kid. If your baby/infant can get passed around like a party favor and love every moment, you should be golden. Or if you have a magical window every afternoon that always seems to find them in a good mood — perfect! 

With three kids, it’s nearly impossible for us to find that kind of window. So we try to be realistic with our expectations.

Make a promise about your holiday traditions

I want you to tell yourself you will not get frustrated if your toddler doesn’t want to smile or sit on Santa’s lap, even if you waited a long time. 

My wife and I just kinda shrugged our shoulders when we realized it just wasn’t going to happen for all of our kids. It would have been great if it did work, and you bet I would be showing it off everywhere! But we’re not going to make any of them feel like they were “being bad” or not listening. 

That would be a weird standard, right? Because then we’re saying Santa is more for our ability to show off to other parents than he is about the spirit of adding joy to the season.

If you have a baby, this is especially true, because babies don’t even know what you’re doing! It’s not like the baby thinks “Normally I would cry if mom lets me go, but this time, I know we’re counting on a card out of this so I’m getting my shit together!”

Christmas won’t be ruined if your baby cries as soon as you try to hand her over to the jolly man in the big red suit. It just means you might’ve wasted an hour.

You may try some tricks to pull a photo off, anyway, because you’re brave and hopeful, and for that, go for it! Nobody gets to say how you celebrate the holidays. Just don’t let the result be too crucial to how happy you are.

Some parents time it out with nap time, or they sneak out right before the photo is taken. Maybe you could rent a baby that smiles all the time! Is that a thing? Maybe that should be a thing.

Hey, I know parents who try multiple Santas so they can get a good one, and it works for them.

Just don’t tie in your ability to enjoy a part of the holiday season or your worth as a parent with the quality of a picture with Santa.

Alternatives to getting a photo with Santa

If you want a magical moment caught on camera in December that doesn’t involve having your kid sit on a stranger, try taking a pic:

  • At a holiday light display. In our area, there’s a mammoth light display you can walk through. With a decent camera (or something like Pixel’s new Night Vision option), it shouldn’t be hard to snap a pic of your kid admiring the lights.

  • While cookie decorating. A few gingerbread cookies (or a gingerbread house if you’re a pro!) and your kid with the icing means photo magic. 

  • With some garland by the tree. You can’t go wrong having an infant play with some garland. It’s adorable every time! They love playing with it.

  • Having one of YOU in a Santa outfit. You can tell your kid you just want to dress up as Santa for fun, and get the same photo, now with added hilarity. 

We flat out skipped even trying to see Santa last year, in fact.

Strangely, no one texted and demanded a Santa photo. Because it’s not a big deal.

I hope December turns into a memorable month for you. I’m in the prime years of Christmas wonder with my kids, and we’re trying to soak up every moment. They were thrilled to put up Christmas lights, and by that I mean pull out every strand while I kept telling them to put them down until I was ready. They are pumped for their “Christmas snockings” (not a typo… that’s what they call it!) to go up. 

And my daughter, the one who wasn’t thrilled with Santa? She’s very excited to see two unicorns under the Christmas tree. I can’t come through with a great Santa photo, but two unicorns? I’ll see what Christmas magic a dad can pull off.