Just outside the bustling city of New York, in a mildly less bustling suburb, lies a popular mall with family-friendly attractions and decent quick-service food. Parking is ample and the floors are kept clean. There’s elbow room for zigzagging toddlers to roam. Moms like me flock there more often than our wallets would like to admit for the draw that is a gigantic Whole Foods and a Target under one roof. And every year, for one month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, a beautiful green velvet chair sits in the center of the mall surrounded by sky-high Christmas trees and sparkling golden decorations.
The chair is reserved, of course, for Santa Claus…the one and only.
My son Jack turned two just before the season began, and I quickly became so excited to celebrate his third Christmas. Just after this Thanksgiving, his interest seemed to pique for the first time. He began to ask about Christmas lights, he smiled ear-to-ear at every bell-ringing Salvation Army volunteer, and I’d often notice him singing to himself adorably botched lines from the nonstop Christmas songs he heard on Lite FM (Feliz Navidad, for example, became “Heat Mommy Rock.”) I quickly realized that this was the first Christmas he seemed to “get,” so I was anxious to bring him to meet Santa at our favorite mall.
One afternoon at the end of November, I dressed Jack up in a red sweater and we headed to the mall. On the way there in the car, we talked about what would happen when he met Santa and we practiced how to answer various questions Santa might ask. It went a little something like this:
What’s your name? Jack!
Have you been a good boy? Um-hm.
What would you like for Christmas? Thomas and Mickey and Minnie!
When we arrived at the mall, we were greeted by the glorious sight of an absent line and Santa and his photographer elves basically twiddling their thumbs. Jack toddled up to the gate around the display and was greeted by Santa’s warm smile. “Come on in,” Santa told him, as he waved his hand gesturing toward the big green chair.
Jack smiled and began to walk toward Santa, glancing at me for a quick check of Mom approval. I smiled and encouraged him to introduce himself. And their adorable first conversation began.
Although Jack is a fairly sociable toddler, he is usually shy with new people, especially when not holding onto Mama. I was amazed at how instantly comfortable Jack was with Santa. He talked and talked, and jumped (literally) at the offer to sit on his big new friend’s cozy lap. His eyes lit up from moment one and he smiled the entire time. He clearly knew he was in the presence of magic!
We took our photo and Jack got his very first candy cane, and we were on our merry way. Jack told everyone he saw that he “met Santa,” and we headed to Whole Foods like always to restock our constantly low supply of organic milk. Jack had a ball and we both had a fun day at the mall.
But it was in the days to follow that the magic really hit me.
Jack and I went to the mall several times each week, for those typically frequented Mom stores and also to escape the suddenly frigid temperatures with some indoor activity that got us out of the house. Every time we went, Jack would ask to stop and say hi to Santa.
He bolted for Santa’s chair each time, dismissing anyone else in his path in true toddler form. The first time he did this, I grabbed him by the gate and said, “You can’t go in honey, we’re not taking a picture today!” But Santa reassured me and waved my excited boy inside the gate. “Hello Jack,” he said with another welcoming smile. “So nice to see you again!”
“Did he just say Jack?” I thought to myself, quite impressed.
Jack beamed and jumped through the gate headed toward his new friend. He stood between his big black boots, and they exchanged high fives and hugs. I stood by as they had another priceless conversation and watched the look of awe in my son’s eyes that I’ve never quite seen before.
And so this friendship went, for the entire month between Thansgiving and Christmas.
Jack talked about Santa countless times a day at home. He visited with him every time we went to the mall, often on trips that were specifically to see him. Santa greeted him by name each time, and talked to him about his day and the importance of being good. We reported to Santa when Jack was having trouble taking naps, and Santa gave him sound advice of which Jack would later remind me. We even signed up for the Breakfast with Santa at Whole Foods early one December morning, and Jack got to share some meal time with his favorite guy. Each time they hugged, my heart melted as my little boy fell into Santa’s furry beard, shut his eyes tight, and smiled ear to ear, as if to soak up the magic he felt from his warmth.
We learned a lot about Santa during our visits with him throughout the season. We learned that his favorite cookies are homemade sugar cookies (and chocolate chip a close second), his eyes really do twinkle, he likes to drink bubbly Poland Spring water when he’s not having hot chocolate or milk, and when he’s absent from his big chair between photos with children he goes outside to feed his reindeer.
The day before Christmas Eve, I scrambled to finish my shopping like any true procrastinator, and Jack had the pleasure of accompanying me on the 600 errands. I tried to make the long, busy day fun for him, so I budgeted in some time to stop at Qdoba for his favorite tacos and squeezed in some playtime at the Disney Store. And to avoid any disappointment in post-Christmas mall trips, I also thought it was important to talk to Jack about Santa’s schedule.
“I know how much you love visiting Santa when we go to the mall,” I explained. “Santa has to go back to his home in the North Pole tonight so he can get the presents ready for all the kids around the world. He will come back to see us again next Christmas.”
“Uh-huh…” Jack answered with his brow wrinkled. “Nothe Po, Mama.”
We agreed we needed to make one more visit to say farewell to Santa until next year. When we entered the mall the line to meet Santa was wrapped around the Christmas trees. There were more kids than I’d ever seen before in this usually quiet Santa spot. “How are we going to get some one-on-one time with a line that long?!” I nervously thought, worried about my son being disappointed.
Determined not to break my promise, I picked up Jack and we sneaked over to the side of the gate when Santa stood up for a moment to sip some water between photos. “Santa?” I whisper-shouted. We got his attention and he came right over to us with a smile that defied the long line of impatient, crying babies.
“Santa, we just wanted to say goodbye because we know that you have to go back to the North Pole tonight,” I explained. “That’s right, Jack,” Santa said smiling as he looked deep into Jack’s big brown eyes. He took his little hand in his white-glove-covered hand and said, “I have loved seeing you this Christmas, Jack. Thank you for always visiting with me. Now, you continue to be a good boy and I will check in on you tomorrow night, ok? Have a Merry Christmas and we’ll see each other again here next year.” He kissed Jack’s little hand and gave me a sweet smile as he headed back to his chair. Jack smiled with delight and I wiped the tear streaming down my cheek.
This experience and getting to know Santa touched a piece of my heart that I hadn’t connected with since my own childhood. Jack and I are excited to bake Santa his favorite sugar cookies tonight and will write him a note to tell him how happy he made us both all season. I’m not sure who will miss seeing Santa more…Jack or me! One thing I do know is that Santa Claus is real. This wonder-full man gave my son the most precious gift of belief that he will cherish even as an adult. And this Mama is so thankful for that.