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Ho, ho ... EEK!
What's a parent, or a Santa, to do when the obligatory Christmas photo op goes terrifyingly off the rails?
Fernando Martin remembers the moment well. Son Xandro was stunned into silence during his first visit to the Jolly One at age 21 months near home in Lancaster, Pa.
"They put up this tiny house with just Santa, an assistant and a heater," dad recalled. "He got spooked. Santa offered him chocolates. He did not take them."
There was no lap sitting, but there is a picture of a cringing Xandro in dad's arms while Santa leans in. Now 4, Xandro hasn't been back.
While thousands of little Santa believers do just fine every Christmas, the minority is far from silent. They cry. They shriek. They perform the death grip on a parent's leg.
Many parents have been there: Overheated, overstimulated kids. Nap and snacks skipped to protect turf in line and avoid, heaven forbid, another Santa visit on another day in a mall full of crazed shoppers.
Then there's Santa himself. Usually a fine specimen but sometimes sweaty, exhausted or otherwise sketchy, eyes peeking out of bushy white beard. Perhaps he's less jolly after the 1,000th kid. Maybe he hasn't been to Santa school.
Six-year-old Halle Harrison paid her first visit to Santa at age 2 with her three older siblings after a Christmas program that took forever in a small preschool gym in Nampa, Idaho.
"We waited in line for an eternity," mom Taunia Kerner recalled. "I was about to lose my mind by the time we got up to Santa's lap. I insisted everyone sit since we had waited for so long." Her other kids did fine. Halle "went ballistic screaming, crying."
The worst case scenario is when a parent fails to turn tail, hoping the situation will miraculously work out, said Krista Casler, a child development specialist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.
"The whole reason for doing it is it's supposed to be fun, but some parents really want that photo," she said.
They want it bad. They bribe. They yell. Worse, they take Santa to the dark side with threats of the naughty list and no gifts come Christmas Day if a child doesn't smile.
"For the most part, little babies, 8 or 9 months, can be quite sweet in lovely little pictures with Santa," said Casler, a psychology professor and director of the school's Child Development Lab. "But when you're 1 or 2, you don't understand why you're being handed over. This very unusual person is taking you from your mother's arms."
Sometimes it's stranger anxiety, sometimes performance anxiety for older kids who plain don't feel like making happy in front of so many people with cameras flashing. Don't push it, Casler counsels, but do prepare.
She suggests introducing the concept of a Santa visit to a child before trekking out to the mall. "Talk about him, read a book, role play visiting him."
Or try a dry run. "Take a child to Santa's workshop a few days before the intended photo day just to watch."
On the big day, if a toddler becomes scared, offer options other than lap sitting — standing next to him or giving him a high five, Casler said.
"Follow a child's lead and respect him or her. Walk away if crying ensues," she added. "If a photo isn't possible this year, help a child write Santa a letter."
Kelly Murphy is 20 now but remembers her childhood Santa fear like it was yesterday. She never made it to the mall.
At 5, Murphy said it was all over for her when she watched "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" with her parents and two younger sisters on TV in Avon, Conn. "When I saw the Grinch I experienced a whole new level of anxiety, knowing that it was possible for someone to break into a house by the window — and wouldn't it be easier to just come down the chimney?"
Murphy, now a college junior, became an insomniac, until her desperate parents told her Santa wasn't real, then begged her to keep the info to herself.
"I was really nervous that she would tell her friends and, more importantly, her sisters," said her mother, Trish Murphy. "So she had to keep the secret and she did. I always felt bad about it."
Casler approves of blowing Santa's cover when a situation is extreme. Inappropriate are parents who swing the other way: "If you don't believe in Santa, he won't bring you any presents."
Tim Connaghan in Riverside, Calif., would never think of taking that step. He's been Santa since 1969 and owns The Kringle Group, LLC, complete with a Santa wardrobe company, booking agency and training school. He has more than 1,800 Kris Kringles on his database, mostly for special events and private parties.
He estimates, conservatively, that 35.5 million children will visit Santa, most without incident, in malls, shopping centers and at community events this year. How do all those Santas cope when terror takes over a youngster?
"Santa has four different bosses: The children, the parents, the mall and the photo company," Connaghan explains. "You have to keep everybody happy. It takes a good disposition. We try to get the guys in the mindset and not be flustered."
Personal grooming is important. Trim those beards, he tells his Santas, and get a decent-fitting suit. "I emphasize that a real beard is especially important."
A well-trained St. Nick never declines a screaming child, but does come armed with tricks:
— Advise parents to take a wary young child up to Santa without facing the chair on approach, then have them set the child on his knee for a quick picture before anxiety bubbles over.
— Step away and let mom sit in the big chair, then peak in over the back or one side for a photo, or try to sit on the chair's arm.
— Have a stool, box or sleigh handy for kids to sit in front of rather than on top of Santa.
Sometimes, Connaghan said, Santa has to be completely out of the picture, leaving parent and child to be photographed with an elf or two.
"The child is crying and the parent is sitting there saying, 'Well what can I do? I need the picture for grandma,'" he said. "We're here to give the family whatever they want."