You probably don’t know this, but I’m a semi-kick ass babysitter. While I lack most maternal instincts, I’ve got a good head for rainy day activities. And crafts? No sweat. Where’s the clay? We’re headed to Gymboree? Awesome. Can’t wait ’til parachute time. Bedtime stories? Great. I do voices. To back all this up, I should probably also mention that I actually still sit from time to time, since everyone knows babysitting is good work if you can get it. But along with the fact that I can cook and bake, I don’t spread this around too much. The way I see it, if you have to beg me to be around your kids, you can’t afford me.
All of this is to say — in short — that as far as kids and I are concerned, we’re cool. Most of the time, my problem is with their parents. And, from what I’ve seen out there, I’d like to think that if I had a completely different personality — one that made me more inclined to mother a small person — I’d be a pretty cool parent. Or, at least, I’d never wrestle my screaming child onto Santa’s lap in order to force a priceless holiday memory. And, again, I don’t have children, but I’m still pretty sure I wouldn’t act all pissed off and surprised that 1.) my kid’s iffy about strangers in costume or 2.) that the only picture you’re going to get of a cranky three year-old on Santa’s lap features a full-on holiday meltdown. But who knows? Maybe I’ll lose my mind someday.
While this seems kind of random, this is the only way I can start to process my encounter with the Breakfast with Santa scene. I know I’ve been to one of these before, when I was six, because there are pictures. I don’t remember it at all, but the pictures in my mom’s double frame create a pretty typical holiday scene for my family. While my hair and dress (really, Mom?) are on a downhill slide from messy to messier*, the picture on the left shows me on Santa’s lap. I can tell from the satisfied look on my face that during my face time with the Claus, I’ve rattled off a detailed list of gifts and reasons why I deserved them. I might even be counting on my fingers. On the right, my brother is expressing his three year-old aboriginal belief that cameras will steal his soul while warily staring down Santa. Twenty-three years later, things are more or less the same.
But to be a non-parent adult observer to the Santa mania/loathing is something else entirely. As part of my ongoing holiday volunteering experiment**, I had front row seats to the whole imitation maple syrup-fueled spectacular. For two hours, it was my job to help kids off the stage after they had taken their pictures with Santa. Once we all took our big steps down (or I just lifted them off), it was my job to present them with the world’s most terrifying goody bag.
Now, for a short digression on the goody bag. Because one little girl in the company of her over-indulgent grandmother unloaded her bag in front of me when she got bored waiting for her sister to be done with Santa, I can report the following: The medium-sized shopping bag I was handing out contained a reusable bag featuring a vintage illustration of Tony the Tiger, beloved sugar cereal mascot, hero to children whose moms let them have sugar cereal. (Mine didn’t. I thought she lost her mind the time she packed a sample of Honey Nut Cheerios as my snack. I was in third grade. I remember everything about that day.) The inner bag was filled with the following:
- At least two dozen marshmallow Peeps Christmas trees. The ones that come in the much easier to open trays. With the green sugar that stains real good.
- At least two large boxes of Mike and Ikes. Easy to choke on, but delicious for kids with teeth.
And each kid got his or her own bag, meaning that in a family of at least two children, we were giving some preschoolers the means to get cracked out at Halloween levels in December.
But back to the whole Breakfast with Santa. From my excellent people watching spot, I realized a number of things:
1. David Sedaris was right in “The SantaLand Diaries” when he claimed that in a number of instances, the whole visit with Santa is more about the parents than the kids. While I hear that kids grow up fast and that does something funny to your brain***, there’s a certain type of parent that gets really aggressive about that picture with Santa. Though I really don’t know what holiday memory you’re trying to capture on film (and possibly have laser-printed onto a key chain) when all you get is a photo of your kid in a holiday sweater having what looks like the worst Saturday morning of his or her life.
2. Either I’m getting old or one or two sets of parents were, like, twelve.
3. Little boys in sweater vests with reindeer on them and collared shirts kill me.
4. Ditto for the way four year-olds tell people that they’re four. Especially when they look super-pleased with themselves for both being four and knowing it.
5. Back in my lifeguarding days I sort of hated parents who pretended that the people who worked around them and made most things possible were invisible. I sort of loved parents who knew that while they liked their kids, not everyone did and that the people who make things happen are actual people who might desperately need coffee. I still feel that way.
So, since I lucked out and was able to watch the whole Santa-tacular go down instead of having to pass out eggs, I started to to think about my relationship to the candy hand grenades I was handing out. Was I responsible on some level for the damage what I was handing out could inflict? For a fleeting moment, was I also possibly able to balance the scales for the kids who I had to help talk down from some Santa-induced trauma?
I came to a decision. A small one, based on the fact that once I knew that the amount of sugar I held in my hands could take down an elephant, I couldn’t do nothing. For the parents who seemed sort of cool, I did my best to warn them that they needed to get the drop on their kids. Their only hope was to intercept and edit the goody bags I was handing to their children. Because it is Christmas, though, and I don’t have to talk their kids off the ledge, I didn’t do this directly. Instead, I hoped they understood what I meant when I apologized directly with a meaningful look at the bag or if I just shot them sympathetic looks about the sea of crap I just introduced into their lives. As for the uncool parents, well, I attempted to give their kids the “go ahead, I’m an adult and I say it’s okay” look as payback.
Live fireworks would have been less dangerous. And prettier.
*Around here, we call that “the usual.”
** That’s right, I am calling it an experiment now.
*** I think I heard that it makes it mushy.