We stood in line for probably a half hour. A half hour surrounded by families with other small children who were anything but patient. They melted into the linoleum beneath us, and were dragged along as the line inched closer and closer to the man in red who sat wearily in between children, pulling out his smile just in time as the next kid was placed on his lap. All around us was the siren of crying and children shouting, and the air took on a mixture of fear and a bit of fried food that was being served down the way in the busy mall. Little girls pranced in and out of the line in pretty holiday dresses, tapping their shiny black shoes and spinning to see their skirts flare out. But our sweet tomboy 2 year old was as comfortable as can be in her overalls and pigtails, and stayed close by. She happily ran her fingers over the cottony snow that bordered the line, giggling as the glitter glistened in the lights. And she was delighted to see it fall all around her as she tossed it up in the air and watched it snow down on her. But she wasn’t so thrilled when I took her hand to keep her from desecrating the already sparse snowfall of glitter and cotton, squirming to be able to squish the softness in her hands.
The line crept forward until we were finally at the front. The little boy in front of us smiled a huge, artificial smile at the camera, keeping his face frozen until the flash went off and left green spots in all of our visions. I heard him tell Santa exactly what he wanted, naming off toy after toy in a long list he had likely memorized over the past few months. And when he was done, he hopped off Santa’s lap and joined his family who was waiting patiently for him.
It was little DQ’s turn now. And suddenly our brave little girl was looking a little timid. I held her hand as we approached Santa, introduced them, and stepped off the platform as she was lifted onto his lap. He asked her what she wanted for Christmas, but she could barely open her mouth to speak. And so instead, he told her to look at the camera and smile. But her smile was completely unnatural. It was more like a grimace, or like she was suppressing something in the seat of her pants. And so I had them take another, then another, and then another. After all, I was paying good money for this, and I wasn’t going to get this 2 year old moment back with Santa again.
When I was younger, my mother always had us take pictures with Santa. First it was just me as a baby. And then I was joined by my baby sister. Soon there were three girls in the picture, all smiling widely as we sat with this magical man who only wanted to fulfill all our wildest visions for the perfect Christmas morning. And when we left him, we always walked away with some special treats that Mrs. Claus sent us home with – a delicious candy cane and a book to color in. It didn’t matter that the candy cane was about as big as the palm of our hand, or that the coloring book was only 3 pages long. It came from Santa. And that made it special. We looked forward to it every year. That is, until we stopped believing. But we had to keep it up for the youngest sister who still believed. And even when the jig was completely up, we still kept up the tradition so that my mother would have another photo of us with Santa to add to her growing collection of pictures she displayed at Christmas time.
I didn’t quite understand what the big deal was in those later years – that is, until I had children of my own. Suddenly, I saw those photos as trips down memory lane, remembering the story behind each year, and anxious to start my own collection of Santa pictures for my kids to enjoy in the years to come. And yet, my daughter, the girl who usually had such a beautiful smile, wasn’t cooperating. Her smile was waning, and it was more of a show of her teeth than anything that resembled a smile.
“Just one more,” I begged the photo Elf. And she smiled knowingly. I was vaguely aware of the line behind us getting impatient for their turn with the big guy, but I really wanted something I could display on the piano. The photo snapped, and the captured shot on the screen of my daughter’s crooked smile was more of fear and discomfort than that of joy.
“Moooooom,” she said in a wavering voice, and it was suddenly apparent just how afraid she was.
“We’re done,” I told the grateful Elf, stepping forward to scoop my poor daughter up in my arms. And we took the picture with us.
I looked at it later, and couldn’t help but laugh at the hesitancy in my daughter’s eyes. And behind her, a very exhausted Santa had the look of “Aren’t we done yet?” all over his face. To this day, even after several more photos with two kids more than happy to see Santa, it is my absolute favorite one.
Merry Christmas to each of you. May your day be filled with joy and laughter, and family and friends. Take lots of photos. And don’t forget to say thank you to all the Santas in your life.