In the wake of the #MeToo movement, a cultural reckoning with the lap has implications for the performers who seek to embody Santa Claus’s spirit in retail settings each December.
Sometime in December, 2010, my wife and I, bewildered, brand-new parents, found ourselves in a drugstore in Brooklyn, handing our infant daughter to a stranger wearing a fake beard. There is a photo of this moment; we put it on the Christmas card that year. In her slightly-too-big snowsuit with a faux-fur hood, our child resembles a tiny East Coast rapper from the nineties. The stranger is a twentysomething Rite Aid cashier wearing a Santa Claus outfit and a sheepish half-smile. Framed against a backdrop of “Merry Christmas” wrapping paper, both subjects appear confused, but content. We found the obvious jankiness of this underlit digital photo hilarious. It told the story of our year, simply by not being a better, more traditional Christmas-card picture, which we were too tired to take.
In our daughter’s most recent Santa photo, taken a couple of years ago at the Americana at Brand, a shopping mall in Glendale, California, she has her back to the camera and is addressing Santa face to face, like a movie character who’s been offered a seat at a tense meeting but has elected, defiantly, to stand. They spoke in hushed tones for a moment, then parted ways. The picture from this encounter says more about the person she was becoming than any angelically composed lap-sit Santa photo ever could. And, in opting to forego the lap-sit, our daughter was participating in a growing cultural shift. Last year, I began to notice more and more Santa-visit photos on social media that depicted kids standing side by side with the jolly old elf, or sharing a spacious bench, or occasionally sitting in a child-size, Santa-adjacent chair. My unscientific survey of parents and caregivers who responded to a Twitter callout suggested that accommodations like the bench are becoming an industry standard at mall-Santa villages across the country.
Ours is an age of ever-increasing parental vigilance regarding most forms of non-parental touch. And, in recent years, the ripples of the #MeToo movement have spurred a broader reëxamination of a wide range of social norms concerning boundaries and consent. The patriarchal male lap has become an inherently vexed zone: a matter for H.R., the subject of inappropriate propositions, a key word in bombshell testimony about the misconduct of powerful men. And, while our cultural reckoning with the lap is undeniably a positive and long-overdue change, I began to wonder what it would mean for Santa Claus, and, more specifically, for the performers who seek to embody his spirit in retail settings each December.
Take, for example, the “Santa Fail” slideshow—picture after picture of anguished, often visibly exhausted children, tanking a potentially precious moment by wailing inconsolably in the presence of some long-suffering Claus avatar. These types of images remain a popular form of seasonal clickbait. For parents, in particular, they can be cathartically funny, because parenting can sometimes feel like a mug’s game, in which no good intention goes unpunished, and images of other people’s kids in full holiday meltdown make us feel better about our own stressed-out, imperfect Christmases. But there’s also a growing awareness, manifested in comment-thread scolding, that these are pictures of kids whose visceral and vocal reactions to a discomfiting situation are being ignored, however briefly, for the sake of a Facebook photograph, and who may be absorbing a problematic lesson about the demands of adult authority figures superseding their own sense of what does and doesn’t feel right.
“Parental disappointment, peer pressure, and pleasing an authority figure—any one of those, for an adult, is a difficult situation,” Stefani Goerlich, a sex-and-relationship therapist who works with trauma survivors, including children, told me. “When you’re five, staring down the end of the line, and it’s almost your turn with Santa, you’re dealing with all three at once.”
“When we think about it from a five-year-old’s perspective, Santa is everywhere. Santa sees me. Santa is the arbiter of my value as a child. Have I been good, or have I been bad? Am I going to be rewarded, or am I going to have rewards withheld? There’s a power imbalance there. I feel a certain pressure to do what Santa wants me to do, to sit on his lap, to not throw a temper tantrum. To make sure that, even if I’m scared of this intimidating person, that I get through that photo op, because my mom and dad seem to think this is a great idea,” Gorelic said.
“I think what we’re trying to do is shift the culture,” Elizabeth Jeglic, a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the co-author of “Protecting Your Child from Sexual Abuse: What You Need to Know to Keep Your Kids Safe,” told me. “We’re talking to children about understanding that they have a right to say who can and cannot touch their body, and that they’re the ones that need to give consent.”
Both Gorelic and Jeglic believe that there’s an upside to Santa. For parents and children, Gorelic points out, “these moments can be great practice opportunities. Asking the question, ‘Do you want to go see Santa?’ Respecting the ‘no,’ even if it means losing out on the Christmas-card photo. And, if they say yes, letting the child set the pace through that process. ‘O.K., we’re there. Are you nervous? How are you feeling right now? He’s right there. He’s three feet away now. It’s not an idea now—we’re here.’ Even at the end of the line, when it’s your turn, making it a choice and not an obligation. ‘Do you want to go and say hi? Wanna sit on his lap?’ ”
“Every step of the way, you’re acknowledging their right to opt out, acknowledging their right to set their terms, and empowering them, to say no to grownups, even grownups like Santa,” Gorelic continued. “It’s a huge part of preparing your children to advocate for themselves in other problematic situations.”
The idea of turning a visit with Santa into a teachable moment, designed to empower kids against sexual abuse, will undoubtedly strike more militant defenders of Christmas convention as a symptom of the same overcompensatory caution that prompts calls for the cancellation of mistletoe and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”—an imposition of the concerns of the moment on holiday traditions that comfort us precisely because they’re timeless. But the truth about Santa Claus is that he’s always been an expression of the values of his era.
Although Santa is commonly linked with St. Nicholas, a fourth-century Christian bishop whose benevolence would later inspire traditions of seasonal gift-giving across Europe, he’s very much a modern American invention, and didn’t hit the national stage until the early eighteen-hundreds. In “The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Our Most Cherished Holiday,” the historian Stephen Nissenbaum makes the case that the Santa we know now was essentially invented by a group of aristocratic New Yorkers—which included the merchant and New-York Historical Society founder John Pintard and the writer Washington Irving—who saw rowdy Christmas celebrations in early-nineteenth-century New York as symptomatic of a city sinking into mob rule. The jolly night visitor in the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” written by Pintard’s friend Clement Moore, became instrumental to a new, child-focussed conception of the holiday, centered on hearth, home, and quiet.
Nissenbaum writes, “Santa was part of what we can now see as a larger, ultimately quite serious cultural enterprise: forging a pseudo-Dutch identity for New York, a placid ‘folk’ identity that could provide a cultural counterweight to the commercial bustle and democratic ‘misrule’ of early-nineteenth-century New York.”
The figure of Santa, Gerry Bowler writes in “Santa Claus: A Biography,” served a particularly crucial purpose “at a time in American history when the rise of a consumer economy provided parents . . . with the opportunity and means to buy manufactured goods for their children.” The notion of Santa as artisan, crafting gifts by hand in his workshop, helped resolve the contradictions introduced by consumerism in a society in which “thrift and restraint” were seen as virtues. “What appeared in the children’s stockings,” Bowler writes, had “been ‘decontaminated’ of its mercenary, manufactured aspects and represented something more personal, more loving than if it had come directly from a store.”
Bowler traces the earliest appearances of live “Kriss Kringles” in retail settings to various locations in Pennsylvania in the eighteen-forties. In 1890, a heavyset, white-bearded department-store owner named James Edgar began holding court as a Santa Claus-in-residence at his business, the Boston Store, in Brockton, Massachusetts. Within ten years, the department-store Santa became a staple of the season nationwide. A figure who operates at the intersection of childlike wonder and grimy commerce, the department-store Santa tells us something about who we are at a given moment. He changes when society does; he can only bring us what we’ve asked him for.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, no one from any of the retail outlets that I contacted would agree to go on record regarding the store’s lap-sitting policy, or how it might reflect the evolving conversation about the bodily autonomy of children, or the details of its Santa-vetting process. These days, the Santa’s Village at your local mall is most likely set up by a national photography company, such as Cherry Hill or IPCA, and it’s these companies that vet and hire and pay the Santas who appear there. In 2019, even Santa Claus is just another contractor in the gig economy.
I’d assumed that actual Santa performers would be no less leery of discussing the lap-sitting issue and its implications, since these are un-Santa-like things to think and talk about. But, as it turns out, guys who play Santa Claus for a living think about this stuff a lot. They have to. A successful Santa Claus who doesn’t modify his act to suit the shifting concerns and affinities of the parents who constitute his real audience doesn’t stay a successful Santa Claus for long.
The first thing you learn when you cold-call a bunch of Santas and ask them questions about lap-sitting is that “lap” is no longer the preferred nomenclature. “Now we use ‘Santa’s knee,’ ” Santa Ed told me. Santa Ed’s real name is Ed Taylor, but, in conversation, he’s Santa Ed. I called him just before Thanksgiving, the beginning of his busiest season. He had just done a tree lighting at the Citadel Outlets mall, in Commerce, California. And he was booked for more tree lightings in Santa Monica and at Paramount Studios. Santa Ed is big time. He’s been on “The Doctors” and “Fresh Off the Boat.” In the video for Gwen Stefani’s “You Make It Feel Like Christmas,” Blake Shelton catches Stefani canoodling on a couch with Santa. That’s Santa Ed.
He is sixty-five, and he never imagined a life like this. He owned a marketing firm that worked with small businesses. He played Santa for the first time in 2003, as a volunteer. “I filled in for a friend who became sick,” Santa Ed said, “and very reluctantly had my first Santa experience. And I instantly fell in love with it. I thought, This is so fun—to be this guy, this avatar of goodness and jolliness.”
Santa Ed had called me from his car, a little red Scion with a license plate that reads “N POLE.” He told me that he was wearing a red T-shirt and white shorts. “That’s what I wear pretty much year-round,” he said. He sports a full white beard year-round, too, so he’s constantly being recognized as Santa. People pull their phones out and ask him to say a quick hello to their grandchildren.
Santa Ed also runs an online Santa-training school, the Santa Claus Conservatory. (“I call it the Stanford of Santa schools,” Santa Ed said, with an audible twinkle.) They have around eighteen hundred members, at various tiers, from Bronze (“more geared to entry-level Santas”) to Gold and Platinum, for Santas looking to make a serious go of it in the film and television industries. They have courses on video-chat technology and how to work with children with special needs. Avoiding inappropriate touch, and even the appearance of inappropriate touch, is covered in the program, as well. You learn to keep your hands visible at all times, he said, and to involve parents in the lap-sitting decision.
A big part of training Santas in 2019, Santa Ed said, is about imparting students with the awareness that the culture is constantly shifting under their boots, and what might have been appropriate in another decade is now out of the question. Conservatory students are taught that Santa doesn’t tease kids about their weight, even gently, and that political jokes are off the table. “Santa has to stay apolitical. It seems obvious, to me, but there are some who don’t know, until they’re told.”
“The average age of Santas is somewhere in the mid-sixties,” Santa Ed pointed out. “There’s a set of patterns that evolve—language patterns, behavior patterns—that you’re pretty set in your ways with. It takes some conscious effort to question those. To say, ‘Is this still O.K.?’ ”
This is what’s challenging about the job, Santa Ed told me, and also what’s rewarding. “It causes me to question those things, and I like that. Because it’s a growth path. For me, playing Santa is a personal-development quest. And I think a lot of Santas look at it that way. Y’know, they’re a retired cop or whatever, and it’s, like, ‘O.K., it’s time to shift gears, and really look at life through a different lens.’ ”
My next call is to Santa Rick, also known as Rick Rosenthal, an Atlanta-based performer and Santa-school educator. Santa Rick donned the suit for the first time when he was sixteen. Now he’s a pro. He’s made personal appearances at Atlanta Braves games and carolled with the Falcons. He’s been to Hollywood. He’s been to Hong Kong. He had just got a call that day to shoot an international commercial in Bogotá. He runs a Santa school that he says is the second-largest in the country, graduating around a hundred and fifty Santa performers per year. He’s also a booking agent for Santas. “I have over a hundred Santas in the Georgia area alone,” he said.
He was raking leaves in his yard when I called. Santa Rick isn’t shy about discussing the lap-sitting issue. He told me that he’s heard back-channel rumors about the state of California banning lap-sitting at Santa visits. (“Some people who sell Santa supplies are the ones that tipped me off.”) Santa Rick told me that white gloves have been the industry standard in Santa costuming for decades, not only because they protect from germs—an operational hazard in a job that involves hundreds of closeup interactions daily—but because white-gloved hands photograph more clearly, cutting down on the potential for ambiguity. “Basically, you won’t catch a Santa without his gloves on,” Santa Rick said.
The training curriculum at Santa Rick’s school only takes a couple of days to finish, but the school recommends a range of supplemental meetings and activities to help students maintain a Santa mind-set year-round. This is crucial, he said, because a Santa who behaves in un-Santa-like fashion isn’t just risking his own career. He’s potentially destroying a child’s capacity to dream of Santa, and therefore of all things outside observable reality.
“If you do the wrong thing as Santa,” Santa Rick said, “like, when you’re driving down the road, and someone cuts you off, and you do a hand signal? And someone eight or nine years old knows what that is, and that Santa wouldn’t do that? That’ll kill Santa. That’s what I teach at school. Santas kill more Santas than anybody else.”