The lady behind the camera at the Santa photo stop has it all sussed out.
“I don’t tell the kids to say cheese,” she explains, “it looks too fake and try-hard. Also, it’s not very Christmas.”
I’m impressed even though I always tell Tricky to say ‘cheese’ for the camera. It’s my way of signaling that I’ve had enough and I want it all to be finished. I have lots of try-hard pictures of my three and a half year old. The camera lady points out the range of photo packages I can choose from.
“So how do you get them to smile?” I ask, hoping for a useful tip.
“I tell them to say “presents”.
I have taken Tricky into the local shopping centre to have his photo taken with Santa. There is a very small window of opportunity for this. This window must coincide with afternoon tea so as to provide maximum bribe potential, yet prior to any need for toilet. While we, his parents, appear to have successfully toilet trained Tricky we have failed in basic Public Toilet Negotiation. He is terrified of the air dryer. As in, just the sight of one perched near a sink is enough to make him scream. Very very loudly. In vain do we point out the paper towels or agree that he need not wash his hands this once. He clings, and digs in his nails and attempts to climb our bodies, much like a cat ascending a tree at speed.
And the screaming. Very loud. Very unpleasant.
Not very Christmas.
“I don’t like the other Santa, the woman waiting in line beside me says. “He’s got a very unfriendly face. “
I know the Santa she means. We’ve already been given the Word that the general shopping centre Santa isn’t very Christmas. He sits on a full sized sleigh in a winter wonderland setting. His sleigh comes complete with silver reindeer and a built in fan to keep his beard fresh. This was where we had Tricky’s photo taken last year. Tricky didn’t cry or scream last year but he was deeply suspicious.
In the photo Santa is empty-lapped, and hunched at the far end of the sleigh seat. He is unsmiling, his face devoid of expression or indeed any inference of normal muscle tone. Perhaps he’s bitter, or relieved, or on medication.
On my lap, Tricky is glowering at the camera, also unsmiling, also slightly glassy-eyed. He was still in nappies at that stage so perhaps he was working something out.
The only person who looks like they’re actually enjoying themselves in the photo is me, grinning for all of us because I love Christmas so much and we’re making a precious precious memory here, goddamit.
I feel slightly disloyal to winter wonderland Santa, even though I can see at a glance that it’s an entirely different Santa. Last year’s Santa was very old, this year’s is very young. Too young perhaps. I think this is why the woman in the queue beside me perceives him as unfriendly. I wouldn’t call him unfriendly as such. Just bored shitless.
“He is quite slim,” I finally admit, which is probably one of the deadliest insults one could fling at a Santa. “His face is too thin and he doesn’t smile,” the woman hisses at me. I nod, and somewhere another elf falls down dead.
Later, we will pass by Winter Wonderland Santa again and I will try and hide our distinctive other Santa showbag. This will be totally unnecessary as a bevy of lean brown teenage girls will be waiting to have their picture taken with Winter Wonderland Santa and I will note that, with a teenager hooked closely under each arm, this year’s Santa actually seems very happy indeed.
The other day, Tricky asked me if Santa was a boy.
I knew where this was going. Gender is very much on the Tricky mind just now. Followed very closely by genitals. I’m hoping this is a phase but I suspect it may simply be the beginning of the rest of his life. As night follows day so too must the fact that if Santa is a boy, Santa must have a penis.
Yes, I hear myself saying, you’re right. Santa does have a penis.
There are actually three Santas in this shopping centre – Winter Wonderland Santa, Absent Santa who is never on his Santa chair when I pass by, instead purportedly out “feeding his reindeer,” and the Santa who my son and I are now queuing up to see.
This Santa, inside one of the big department stores, is seated on a throne in what might be described as Santa’s Hidden Toy Grotto or alternatively, Santa’s Secret Bondage Dungeon. It gives the whole picture a cosier, more ‘Christmas’ look.
The woman next to me has obviously come to the same conclusion.
“This Santa,” she says approvingly, “is more real.”
Secret Bondage Santa looks fat and old and wears spectacles. Also there is only a very tiny queue. This makes him very real indeed and ideal for our 2009 Christmas photo.
It’s our turn and I push Tricky forward into the arms of a costumed stranger, exhorting him to sit on his lap and musing to myself what a strange and creepy thing this is to do to a child. I see that I have hastily dressed Tricky in his brown plaid shorts with the cowboy on the pocket and a long sleeved green shirt printed with giraffes.
Against the uniform red of Santa’s trousers and with a group of red, white and green children waiting patiently behind us I can see how my son clashes rather horribly. I have no real excuse for this except that I was hurrying to make the toilet window and we hadn’t done the washing for a while. I dug in a drawer, I saw green, I saw “shirt bought by grandmother”, I even checked with Tricky’s father as we flew down the stairs: “Does your son look ok in this? Look at him, look at him please, we’re having a photo with Santa, tell me Does Your Your Son Look Ok In This?”
His father hesitated and then said: “He looks great!"
Now, having had a moment to collect my thoughts in the photo line, I can see that Tricky does not look great. He looks like a homeless person let loose in a handcraft market I think to myself as I straighten his shirt. I make a mental note to shout at his father when we get home.
I wonder again if it's time for a haircut. We have not been able to bring ourselves to cut Tricky’s hair yet and so it hangs in dark curls around his shoulders. Several curls fall rakishly over his eyes. Sitting on Santa’s lap he looks through his hair at me now. He is not scared but I can see he’s a little confused. He turns to stare at the strange man holding him firmly across one thigh.
“Is Santa a boy?” Tricky asks suddenly.
"Yes," I say.
“What a good little girl,” says Santa.
“It’s our photo with Santa, darling” I say encouragingly, “Say cheese!”
The camera lady waves a stuffed reindeer and gives me a look.