Thursday, December 17, 2015

From screaming to smiling: Growing up with Santa visits

One of my favorite scenes from A Christmas Story is when 9-year-old Ralphie visits Santa at Gimbels department store. The line is long, the elves are bitter, and Santa is more like Ebenezer Scrooge than jolly ol’ Saint Nick, responding to Ralphie’s request for a BB gun with “you’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” 

It’s possible that I had a similar experience. I don’t actually remember a bad Santa visit, but here’s the thing: I don’t remember any Santa visits. That’s strange, right? Maybe my coping mechanism is to suppress painful memories, which would also explain why I have only vague recollections of dancing in public.

2006: The first Wixon boys Santa photo
with Ryan (4) and Cooper (18 months)
The Santa visits I remember well, and I hope to always remember well, are those of my kids. The visits started nine years ago, and in all likelihood, this will be the last year. My oldest sons are 13 and 10, and at this point they’re just going through the motions for their little brother. And Nathan – Baby Nathan, as his brothers like to call him – is 7 years old and seems far too world-wise for that age. He already mentions Santa with a sort of wink-wink, nudge-nudge knowingness.

I remember, with an admittedly schmaltzy wistfulness, when the kids were younger and the Santa magic was like pristine snow. The boys sat on Santa’s lap and flashed smiles that were simultaneously innocent and mischievous. Their enthusiasm was boisterous, even after a draining wait in a line filled with strollers, sippy cups and parents reminding their kids not to eat the fake snow.

I think the Santa-visit enthusiasm hit at about age 2. When Nathan was 10 months old, he sat on Santa’s lap with the tense look of a kid being shipped off to boarding school. No surprise there, because to an infant or toddler, Santa is like a large, loud, oddly dressed kidnapper.

2008: Nathan, with a very tense look,
joins his big brothers
At 22 months, Nathan wanted no part of Santa at all. The photo captures him during an onslaught of screams as his brothers smile blissfully on each side of him. The strained look on Santa’s face really takes me back to that moment. Santa got in one hearty “Ho! Ho! Ho!” and then told the photo elf to “Take the picture! Take the picture!”

Years passed, photos were snapped, and the kids grew up. There were matching outfits and matching complaints about the wait in line. Someone was hungry, someone was thirsty, and at least once, someone needed to urgently use the bathroom about a minute before we got to Santa.

Every year, Santa asked the boys what they wanted for Christmas. The early answers were sweetly adorable. Big-boy bike, football helmet, dump truck and dirt. Then the responses grew with the kids, evolving into something like “a WiiU video-game system with the Super Mario 3D World bundle, not the Nintendo Land bundle.”

2009: Take the picture! Take the picture!
It sounded like a drive-thru order. Thanks, Santa … do I get a receipt with that?

Last year, my oldest son, Ryan, had a list for Santa (he said, with a wink) that was typed on the computer and included bullet points. My middle son, Cooper, had a list that included prices he found on This was from the same Cooper who, starry-eyed at age 3, asked Santa to bring a real race car “for I can ride in.”

Now Cooper is smiling with his brothers in one more Santa photo. I guess it’s possible that this won’t be the last year, but it feels like it. It also feels like a sort of milestone in our lives, or at least in my life, because my kids might not remember the Santa visits.

I probably shouldn’t call this a milestone moment. Nothing has been achieved. It’s certainly not in the class of graduating from college, or getting married, or having kids who can transform from toddler to teenager in a flipbook of Santa photos.

No, it’s not a milestone. Maybe it’s better described as a mile marker. You know those numbered posts along the highway that are blurs in our peripheral vision as we heavy-foot it to our next destination in life? Something like that.

The annual Santa photos -- sometimes with smiles, sometimes with tears, sometimes with Santa saying “take the picture!” – have been a chance to slow down and let a few mile markers come into focus.

What emerges from the speed smear are the kind of snapshots that make the journey special.
-- Growing up with Santa (2006-2014) --

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