I'm not a parent, but I was recently parented and I have a ton of questions about the whole raising children thing. Here's my most seasonal question: why does our culture tolerate and encourage the photographing of our smallest countrymen sitting on the lap of a stranger dressed in a costume? You all realize that's not really, Santa, right? Regardless of our cultural attachment to St. Nick as an adorable, gift giving Arctic dweller, that's not him. That's some dude named Franklin who's hiding bottles of supermarket cooking wine in his fake beard.
I've been suspicious of mall Santas since I was a child, possibly because my lifelong anxiety gave me an especially refined creep-o-meter. Everyone was an enemy, and any interaction was an opportunity for molestation and abduction. You should have seen me as a seven-year-old at Disneyland, accusing everyone of "being in violation of their parole." I was an absolute joy.
Mall Santas only served to further refine my already finely tuned creep-meter, which I employed to tell my parents I was not comfortable around our across-the-street neighbor, who was later arrested! Mall Santas were a yearly exposure to creepers, and set my alarm bells off before I was old enough to know what those alarm bells meant. It's a sense my parents were happy I was born with, because it instinctively told me to run the other direction.
As a toddler, my parents tried to go the mall Santa route, but I patently wasn't having it. I threw a full blown fit only to calm down as soon as my parents relented and said I didn't have to sit on that drunken stranger's lap. It's like I just knew. Something is not right here. I recoiled in terror at the lap-sitting. The idea of an adult in costume terrified me. Everything about it seemed wrong. I wasn't the only perceptive child–whenever I see lines of families with children, I see about and even split of children wide eyed with excitement and wide eyed with terror, clearly being dragged by their parents. I love Santa as much as the rest of you, but why was it so important to get this picture? Every other photo involved a crying child.
Now, there are of course exceptions. Some mall Santas are nice grandpas who know how much kids love it and just want to bring cheer. There are nice people in the world. It was easy to tell the difference. But for every retired mailman who wanted to make a few extra dollars to augment his social security check, there had to have been an out of work Park Ranger who was hoping to get lucky with a high school kid working as Santa's helper. My similarly anxiety-ridden and sour sister and I would follow our parents around The West Side Pavilion buying presents for our families, and she and I would take one look at the featured Santa and rate him as either pervy or fine. I can't easily articulate what it was about the pervy ones that stuck out to us–lingering glances, getting handsy with the elves. We could just tell.
Years later, I was forced to interact with a Santa Claus character. One particularly relevant event was a lunch affair at a local historical society (I think? My mom cannot confirm this, but we both remember a fancy old house with lots ornate details and museum-esque signage) where we ate brunch, listened to carolers dressed up in Little Women clothes, and socialized with a Santa and Mrs. Claus impersonator duo. After dessert, all the children were made to line up and take a photo with Santa Claus while Mrs. Claus socialized with the parents. When it came time for my turn, I refused to sit on his lap, and insisted that Mrs. Claus also be in the photo. I felt that a photo of Santa and I alone would be improper, and that Mrs. Claus should be there to chaperone. Now, I recognize that same move when a male gynecologist performs pelvic exams. They've always got a female nurse in there to chaperone. I resist the urge to call the nurse "Mrs. Claus."
There's something important about the creep-meter that I developed, and mall Santas (or any adult person dressed in costume offering photos of strange children seated upon their laps) went a long way in nurturing my sense about creepers. Creeps know no race, age, size, or any physical characteristic (although once my boyfriend lost a bet in college and had to shave his beard leaving behind a robust mustache, and I was so scared that I made him sleep on the couch for a few nights), but they all engage some sort of sixth sense in me that says "walk the other direction." Mall Santas were a huge stepping stone in refining my sense of what I didn't want near me, and to articulate my desire to stay away from them.
I will never forget a mall outing when I was a pubescent 14-year-old with a few friends (no doubt to see Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights or similar, which I watched recently and has a really fucked up part with Patrick Swayze and butt sex innuendo, but I digress) when the Santa Claus on duty emerged from the men's room and sidled up to my friend and said "Do you wanna come sit on Santa's lap? Have you been a good girl?" He didn't say this to me, possibly because I looked like someone's little brother, but her response of "my grandfather is younger than you" was an absolute model of poise. And so, for me, the Christmas spirit will always be unmistakably entwined with super creepy dudes, so long as mall Santas walk this earth.