In addition to being an awesome wedding, portrait and event photographer I bet many of you don’t know that I moonlight in December as Santa’s official photographer. (And queue the elf jokes in 3,2,1….)
Santa Photos are a big part of what I do. At Martinez Santa House, I diversify my business and serve my community. I didn’t start out as a photographer thinking that I was going to run a Santa photo operation; it just happened naturally. When the Director of Main Street Martinez approached me, tired of the grind of working in Santa House along with her 40-hour plus full-time job I was a fairly new photographer. I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into so I wholeheartedly jumped into the world of candy canes, Christmas wish lists, ear-whispering and jolly old elves. With an exceptional team in place that I’ve built and strengthened (we now employ 7 people) we have increased the number of visitors to see us year after year.
The world has changed a lot since 2011. Gone are the days where I could easily pick up a child and help them onto Santa’s lap without a second thought. Gone are the days where a chair will suffice (we have moved to using a love seat to create a natural buffer). Kids sometimes need physical space and options to create it that are as unique as they are. As a photographer and business owner who regularly works with “the big guy” and little people I recognize that in order to help Martinez Santa House flourish my team and I need to be sensitive to the times and our visitors’ needs, perceptions and limits. Children also are developmentally averse to strangers and each of them differ in how quickly they warm up to them. Add the specter of “celebrity” status on top of that (who doesn’t freeze up when they meet a legend?) and you have a whole soup of emotions and reactions. Now, add in the #metoo movement and teaching our children about consent. The way Santa and his team work must change with the climate. If we want fun visits with Santa to continue it’s important to address this.
I’m not going to judge or really talk about the small children (ages 2 and under) crying with Santa photos; the kids who are too little to really remember and understand what is happening when they are deposited on Santa’s lap. They’re plopped down for no more than 20 seconds and that’s their reaction to leaving their parent’s arms. No way do we extend the fear. We won’t allow a child who is fully aware, cognizant, utterly terrified, verbally able to communicate that terror and likely to be traumatized to sit on our Santa’s lap. This age of consent that is upon us is nothing new to our team. Our Santa is a grandfather, a kind, sensitive and empathetic family man. It hurts him to inflict any trauma on a child and he will refuse to do so. It’s important to teach anyone who works with children about consent and respecting physical boundaries.
And while putting a fully-aware child on Santa’s lap is a boundary that is easy to set emotional boundaries also should be established. Our Santa will be careful to ask if a child’s behavior has been “good enough” vs the old “naughty or nice” question. Santa Bruce says the “age for letting a child think they’ll get NO gifts because they’re bad is long gone. If you have to use Santa as a behavior lever, you’re too late. Children can be naughty, certainly, but sometimes that “naughtiness” is simply an age-appropriate response to being tired, or being stressed. To let a small child think that Santa will cut them out because they didn’t do a chore or “talked back” is like hunting mosquitoes with a bazooka. I have it on good authority that Santa has yet to meet a bad child.” (Santa Bruce is as eloquent as he is kind, isn’t he?).
We work in a world where we must ask a child if they want to sit next to Santa instead of on his lap or even stand next to him. We need to respect children’s’ boundaries and be prepared to give them options. We need to support their emotional needs. Any child-centered business MUST adapt or they risk atrophy. We love kids, Santa and Christmas. We don’t want these traditions to die and become vilified because someone isn’t respecting children as actual people. That backlash may even be on its way as more people chose to skip the visit with Santa based on today’s social climate. Yes, you can vilify Santa by saying he is a stranger who gives children candy (sounds a little creepy, right?) but if he is the right Santa, his lap (or the spot next to him) is soft place to land; he’s a grownup who will listen and children, they need to be heard too.