Helping kids warm up to the annual Santa Claus photo

Santa's lap: A scary place for some kids.
Santa's lap: A scary place for some kids. Photo: Getty

Christmas is here, the time we sit our kids on Santa's knee for the traditional festive photo. However not all children share in the joy of getting up close to the big man in red. If your kids are anything like mine, there was a stage when the last thing they wanted to do was sit on the lap of a stranger with a bushy white beard – and I have the photos to prove it. One year my 18-month-old daughter cried hysterically, but we still got the shot!

Michelle Drinnan, responsible for recruiting and training Santas at Book-a-Santa,believes you can never tell from one year to the next, how your child might respond. "It doesn't really matter what age they're introduced to Santa," she says. "It comes down to the personality of the child."

Parents are desperate for a wonderful photographic experience but unfortunately it doesn't always pan out. However with a little planning, you can be 'Santa-ready' for just about anything – and while the photo may not be perfect, the experience will be a happy one:

Preparation is everything

Before going anywhere near Santa, prepare your child. "Have a chat beforehand, and try to introduce your child to Santa a few times before they get to the point of sitting on his lap," says Michelle. "If they can spend time watching, seeing how happy the other kids are, that's really helpful." Last year Sun's 15-month-old-daughter, Alora, was hysterical when she saw Santa. "This year we've been reading her lots of Christmas/Santa books and have been mentioning that we're going to go the shops and take a photo with Santa," says Sun. "Now all she talks about is Santa and Christmas so hopefully we've oiled her up enough now."

Shop around

No two Santas are the same and it's worth finding the right one. "Shop around for your Santas," says Michelle. "It's completely okay to say that this Santa is not winning your child over and that you might try another; it's important to find a Santa Claus who's going to work with you and for you."

Location, location

Choosing a quiet location can help. "Try the smaller shopping centres, not the ones with gigantic lines, where you there to just buy photos," says Michelle. "Go where you're free to see Santa, or where he's walking around." Colin Donald, a Melbourne-based Santa who has donned the suit for many years, is often booked at the same location each week, which can help a child warm to the idea. "Children are welcome to hide behind store furniture and just stare at Santa for while and come back the next day when they feel they can cope," says Colin.

Team Santa

Santas are trained to deal with all sorts of situations and are well stocked with jokes and magic tricks. The photographer and assistant are also there to help. Colin has worked with fantastic photographers and assistants, highly skilled in reassuring children. Last year his photographer had a calming area at the side where an anxious child could sit, and watch the next child having fun with Santa, without putting any pressure on parents. "My photographer and I do whatever it takes," says Colin "If the child needs a break or chill-out time, then they have it."

Keep calm

Meeting such an 'all-powerful' figure as Santa can be overwhelming for a child. The best thing a parent can do is stay calm and lead by example – perhaps have a chat with Santa and the photographer, or even join in the photo. "If parents are anxious and really push the kids, then those kids are the ones that usually become frightened of Santa," says Michelle. Colin agrees and has seen difficult situations with frazzled parents, determined to get the perfect photo. "That's possibly the worst approach because you just get more and more tears from the child," says Colin, who also recommends factoring in extra time for the photo session. "You may need it beforehand to make sure you child is okay."

Think outside the box

Keep the photo casual. Rather than sitting on Santa's knee, children can sit next to him or even stand. "The loveliest photos I've seen have been ones taken in conversation where the children are laughing and happy as opposed to having to sit still for a photo," says Michelle. "Thinking outside the box is really helpful." Once when a little boy was upset, Colin got off the couch and the family sat down instead. "Just when they all said 'cheese', I stood up and the button was pressed," says Colin. "It all happened before the child could figure what was going on."

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Let it go

Sometimes, for whatever reason, the photo is not going to happen. "If it isn't working this time, then try another time," says Michelle. "It's also not the end of the world if you don't get the perfect Santa photo with the perfect hallmark expression." Sun is hopeful this year but is prepared to let it go. "We might get there and Alora may freak out again and if she doesn't like it, I'm not going to force it," she says. "It's strange having to sit on an old man's knee and take photos – I want her to feel confident to say no if she's in an uncomfortable situation with a stranger."

Sensory Santa

Visiting Santa in a noisy crowded shopping centre can be distressing, particularly for a child with special needs. Some locations such as Sydney's Broadway Shopping Centre are offering Sensory Santa. This is a concept established by Chanelle Avison, mother of 11-year-old autistic twins and creator of Sensory Movie Day. Children can visit Santa in a calm situation with no queues, no background music and out of trading hours. "The event is so wonderful because it provides these families with the opportunity to enjoy the one Christmas experience that is otherwise impossible," says Chanelle. "Because of their child's sensory needs, many of these families have never been able to have a family Santa photo." 

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