In Defense of the Mall Santa Experience—Why It’s One of My Favorite Traditions

Source: Shutterstock
Source: Shutterstock

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by holiday expectations as a Millennial parent. Between Elf on a Shelf, the quest for matching holiday PJs, and simply parenting in the age of social media, even the most confident mom can feel less than. That’s why I’ve stopped trying to recreate some of those picture-perfect holiday moments for my kids. Instead, I’m focusing on what traditions work for us, right now. Enter mall Santa. 

The first time we took my now 5-year-old to see Santa, we went to our local mall. We got some adorable photos, and it was relatively low-stakes. With mall Santa, there was no checking an orchestrated naughty-or-nice list, exploring Santa’s “workshop,” or getting photos from a professional photographer. It was just a kid at the mall. And it was perfect. 

Here’s why we’re continuing our yearly visit to the mall Santa, and why it’s one of my favorite holiday traditions. 

Mall Santa is nostalgic

Growing up, my parents took photos of my brother and I on holidays, birthdays, and the first day of school. Sometimes, the holiday photos consisted only of a few snaps with the mall Santa or the Easter Bunny, and a few awkward Christmas morning photos of my brother and I donning oversized T-shirts, the PJ uniform of the ’90s. 

Sure, we had cute outfits sometimes. But there was almost an entire year when I was 10 when I rocked a Pochahontas T-shirt. And there was no social media. If you wanted to show off photos of your kids, you had to print them out, sort through the doubles and outtakes, and physically pass them around at a family dinner or party. 

Have you ever wondered how you’d parent differently if you weren’t scrambling to capture every moment of their childhood? I know I have.

It takes the pressure off

My kids are messy. They love character-themed clothing. They adore wearing mismatched shoes. And my oldest rarely likes photos. While I love looking back at photos of Santa over the years (and the baby’s double chin!), there are years when there’s only one kid in the picture. Or they are wearing Crocs. Or they refused the matching outfits I painstakingly chose for them. 

And that’s OK, especially since our mall Santa experience takes 15 minutes and costs $39.99. 

It’s for the experience, not the ‘gram

While I can appreciate the shift of modern caregiving to support mindful parenting, gender equality, and the blurring of traditional parental roles, there are some aspects of ‘90s parenting I wish we could return to. Mostly, a time when parenting was just easier.

I blame smartphones, social media, and the inevitable comparison game. Within minutes, you can find several different opinions on your child’s rash, or see various perfectly-curated photos of your children’s peers. I’m guilty of it, too. A few times a year, I post professional family photos and let the comments and likes roll in. But it’s not real. 

My kids rolling into a mall’s Santa set up, wearing a cheap Santa shirt, shorts, and probably mismatched Crocs? That’s real. Mall Santa isn’t about the result. It’s about the experience, the magic of meeting a childhood hero, and the preparation of compiling and memorizing a wish list to relay to the big guy. 

But we don’t do the lap or crying 

There was a year or so when my oldest refused photos. He also doesn’t like characters at theme parks and is extremely wary of strangers. Sometimes he’s in our Santa photos, sometimes he’s not. 

As a result, we never really did the Santa’s lap thing, other than when he was a tiny baby. Now I usually just encourage my two kids to sit next to Santa on the couch, or I hop into the photo with them. I teach my kids about body safety, and it’s up to them to decide what feels good and what doesn’t. That goes for Santa, too. 

And if my kids don’t want a photo or start crying? I immediately remove them from the Santa situation. No photo is worth more than their feelings. 

Naughty or nice? Nope. 

We also don’t play up the naughty-or-nice dichotomy when it comes to Santa. All kids deserve gifts during the holidays, regardless of their behavior that year or in the weeks leading up to the holiday. 

I also don’t want to start the belief that motivation should come in the form of gifts or other rewards. I want them to be intrinsically motivated to be kind, do their best, and follow directions at school and at home. 

Mall Santa isn’t for everyone. Some parents love beautiful, professional photos of their children with Santa. If that’s you, embrace it. But not every tradition works for every family. So consider this your sign to do what works for your family, and ditch the rest. After all, it’s your holiday, too. 

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