The classic image of taking children to meet Santa is the mall or department Santa. Kids and their parents wait in lines in the temples of capitalism, training kids to ask for things and running everyone’s patience thin. The moment is rushed and quickly commemorated with a photograph, which usually comes at additional cost.
This is fine; it makes sense overall, since the mall or department store classically has been where the wish list would also be fulfilled. But it’s not my own experience for the most part, and I know I’m biased in this regard, but I really think my parents did it pretty darn well. So here’s their secret:
When my family lived in California (which we did two separate times in my lifetime), we made an annual trip to the Orange Empire Railway Museum (now apparently named the Southern California Railway Museum) to see Santa. When we lived in the DC area (again, two separate times in my lifetime), it was an annual trip to the National Capital Trolley Museum. The fact that my father was an active member and volunteer for these museums did make some impact on this decision of course (full disclosure, my father is currently the president of the National Capital Trolley Museum, so I hear and care a lot about what they’re doing even though I am not currently living in that area).
Every year we’d ride the trolleys at whichever, and Santa would board the trolley with us at some point in the ride, and come to the family and ask us in turn what we wanted for Christmas. I always had my short list meticulously and strategically planned, of course, and my brother always asked for a cyclotron, and of course my sister would gush about all the different things she wanted every year (she likes presents). Photos were taken, and a pleasant time was had by all.
Yes, of course I think that going to your local rail museum for Santa (many other rail museums also have this tradition!) is the best way to see Santa with your family simply because that’s how my family did it. But I have some other reasons here, so hear me out.
If you’ve never been to a rail museum that offers rides on rolling stock, you’re really missing out. They’re all over the USA and even internationally, so there’s probably one in day-trip distance to you, and in the USA they probably do some kind of Christmas stuff, because for some reason that I can’t explain but I feel in the depths of my soul, the Christmas season is inextricably linked with trains and trolleys.
So to start with, instead of waiting in a line in a busy mall to see Santa for a few moments, the you’re riding historical rail cars with your family, and you have exhibits to learn some local rail history from in between seasonal activities.
In many cases, then, Santa actually comes to you and your child while riding on a train or trolley, instead of you waiting to visit Santa enthroned in some kind of grotto. This works very well for young children, who have a little more control over the situation in the rail museum scenario. Santa can read your child’s body language as he approaches and respond accordingly, rather than having your child thrust upon Santa. Your child doesn’t have to go to a stranger, nor sit on a stranger’s lap if your child doesn’t want to. Santa can come and sit beside you and your child instead, which is much more collaborative and less intimidating. If your child is scared and doesn’t want Santa to approach, Santa can and will say “That’s ok, I’ll come back,” and move onto another family, giving your child a chance to collect himself. This isn’t Santa as a remote authority on a literal throne, whom you can only approach once at a designated moment. Instead, this is Santa as a friend who comes to visit and asks you how you are, a Santa who meets you as you are.
Likewise, in this setting, your child isn’t surrounded by attempts to sell more things that your child might want. This lets you know what your child really wants apart from the marketing, because what your child will say is whatever was important enough to remember through the excitement of getting to ride on trolleys.
There’s going to be a lot of things vying for your attention this holiday season. You’ll have to make priorities, of course, according to the traditions you want to establish and keep. But I would encourage you to consider going to a local railway museum, and maybe even running some trains around your tree. Speaking from experience, I can say that trains are a very pleasant and family-friendly tradition to keep.
For more information about the National Capital Trolley Museum’s holiday events, please check out their website, https://www.dctrolley.org/