In 2009, when my now six-year-old niece was a toddler, I suggested taking her to see Santa at Macy’s Herald Square in New York City. We were in the midst of a family rough patch, and it seemed like a new family tradition was in order.
That day highlighted some of the big differences between my older brother and I. His family is early for everything; mine is late. When my husband and I arrived five minutes past the advertised start time for Santa, we found that my brother, my niece, and my mom had gotten there so early (at least half an hour early) that they walked straight through the Santa line when it opened, not knowing it would move so quickly. They were finished before we’d arrived. My niece cried meeting Santa, but my mom and brother felt so bad for not realizing how much I wanted to be there when she saw him for the first time that we took her through the (now considerably longer) line a second time. My niece didn’t cry this time, but it wasn’t quite the same as being there when she first saw him. I didn’t have kids yet and was still pretty romantic about the magic of childhood versus the occasional reality of it—sometimes kids are afraid of Santa.
We had a wonderful post-Macy’s lunch together, but after that rocky first visit I wasn’t sure if we would be visiting Santa on 34th Street again.
The next year right before Thanksgiving I got the family call asking when we were going back. This trip was officially a tradition. This time we picked up my older nephew and my future sister-in-law. Five adults and two kids. I found a great restaurant. So great that it still remains my family’s favorite in the city and the only thing that lured my nephew on these Santa trips as he approached middle school. The Santa experience went smoothly, and we were out of there with an hour or so to kill before the restaurant opened for lunch.
So obviously we raced north to Rockefeller Center to see the tree before racing back south of Macy’s to make our reservation. The kids loved it, the adults were a little harried. We couldn’t keep it simple. But lunch was a fantastic time together.
The following year we still had five adults and two kids, but this time two of the adults were pregnant. That meant a whole extra element of hormones and stress and exhaustion. My husband and I were held up in traffic and later than usual, so we had to wait in line even longer that year, and I was way too exhausted to go to Rockefeller Center afterwards. I just wanted to find a comfortable chair and sit in it until lunchtime when I could then sit down again (ladies, you know what I’m talking about at six months pregnant). But for my brother’s kids seeing the tree was now part of the tradition, so off they went. With my four-months-pregnant sister-in-law (I just wanted to sit down for her). There were some hurt feelings because my mom, husband, and I skipped that new part of the tradition. But again, when we all met up for lunch we had a wonderful time.
I was starting to think maybe our trips to see Santa were getting a little complicated, but I was too excited to have a photo with Santa while I was pregnant. I didn’t give it much thought. I love traditions, and I have a tendency to want to make each birthday/cookout/holiday party/craft project bigger and better than the last. I’d gotten it into my head that since 34th Street Santa was now officially the family thing, my unborn daughter needed to have her photo taken with the “real” Santa from birth to infinity. That photo was Going Into The Baby Book!
This was about the time my husband hinted that maybe we take holiday traditions a little too seriously in my family.
Last year we planned to make the trip with five adults, two kids, and two babies with ginormous strollers. It was becoming clear that the more people we added to the trip, the more stressful it became. One kid was still loving the tradition, but really everyone else could take it or leave it. We were trying so hard to stick with something that didn’t necessarily fit with our evolving families. My baby nephew came down sick at the last minute, so his family skipped Santa altogether that year. My mom decided to stay home.
But it was my daughter’s first Christmas, and I still had it in my head that she had to start her life properly with photos of her and the Macy’s Herald Square Santa (fun fact: there are actually quite a few of them back there working to get everyone through the line, but the children only see the one to which their “elves” direct them). So my husband and I bundled up my daughter, and with surgical precision we went into Manhattan, saw Santa, and left immediately afterward. We got the photo with minimal stress and traffic!
But I also don’t remember much about the day because it wasn’t really an event. There was no family lunch or quality time spent together, so it was also much less fun.
Then this year rolled around, and we decided to try again—but this year my brother and I agreed to treat the day like an experiment. We’d give this tradition one more chance, and if it just wasn’t working for our families we would stop fighting it. Everyone is so busy, and my oldest nephew is now thirteen and cannot be coaxed into a Santa trip even with the promise of a meal at his favorite restaurant. But we were still five adults, a first grader, and two toddlers with ginormous strollers. We could only come up with one available day to meet, and even then we couldn’t meet until lunchtime. Historically we tried to get to Santa as early as humanly possible, but we decided to start with lunch and just see what happened.
So we met for lunch at the family favorite restaurant. Blue Smoke, by the way, is a fabulous barbecue joint a few blocks walk from Macy’s. They are amazingly kid-friendly and have some of the best Mac ‘n Cheese I’ve ever tasted. They bring kids a raw cutout sugar cookie shaped like a pig and a cup of sprinkles to decorate it. They bake off the cookies while you eat and wrap them up special with your child’s name on it as a favor. I can’t recommend them enough. This year they smiled and reassured us while we waited for two of our party stuck in horrible traffic, a toddler breaking a plate, another toddler who was not wild about being in a crowded restaurant, and all the things that come with a big group of family holiday revelers out in the city.
In the end, we had another great family meal together before heading over to Santa. By the time we arrived at Macy’s, the wait in line was two hours plus. The already cramped area around Santaland was heaving. I didn’t think my daughter was up for it. But my niece was terrified at the possibility that she would get so close to Santa and not actually see him. My brother decided to stay and take his kids through; we left (and waited in line for twenty minutes just to get on an elevator). I had a suspicion that my daughter’s visit would end in stress and tears, and it wasn’t worth putting her through it for my photo collection.
My brother confessed to me the next day that my niece had already seen Santa that year with her mom. But this was what our family did for the holidays, so we just kept doing it. And it finally struck him that he liked the idea of our city day out, hitting all of the holiday hot spots, but in reality it was so much work with young kids that it wasn’t fun. He and his family did go to see the tree, but my younger nephew slept through the entire experience and my niece got sick of walking.
I realized that I don’t actually like going to see Santa at Macy’s Herald Square.
It’s not that Macy’s is bad, it’s actually quite magical for young children. But it is difficult with a large group of family members who do things in very different ways. It’s difficult for young children who don’t know what Santa means yet.
When I thought about why my brother, my mom, and I kept trying to keep this tradition going I realized that we like spending time as a family around the holidays, and we like going out for lunch at our favorite restaurant. But for some reason we never acknowledged that the time we spend together talking and sharing a meal could be enough. There had to be activities! And trees! And Santa! I like getting photos taken with Santa, but I don’t like going through the motions with a tradition that my family isn’t truly enjoying.
When I declared on Facebook that our trip to Santa was a bust, a friend told me that the local green market where we get our tree every year was hosting a weekend holiday festival with a bring-your-own-camera Santa experience (which meant FREE, and possibly nicer photos than the expensive store-bought versions). I thought we could manage that, so I took my daughter the very next day. As predicted, she cried.
But we were ten minutes from home instead of an hour, and the market sold hot dogs, hot chocolate, and offered face painting. I gave my husband the year off from Santa duty after our excursion the day before, but I learned for next year that two parents means one can stand in line while the other takes the kids around to eat, shop, and see the sights. We even tried to pick out our Christmas tree before it started snowing on us. We were in much better spirits by the end of that Santa trip, and it was actually really nice to participate in something local.
I’d built this tradition up to something so epic that I was overlooking the simple pleasures of my own neighborhood. I learned some things from that first visit that will help make it even better next year, and I’m looking forward to new traditions with my extended family that take the pressure off. There’s already enough to go around during the holidays.
Maybe in a couple of years—when my daughter is old enough to really see the magic—my husband and I will play hooky on a quiet weekday, go into Manhattan, and take her back to Macy’s to see Santa. Maybe then she’ll be so thrilled by it that we’ll be able to overlook the crowds and the pricey photos to have that experience with her. But maybe she’ll also be completely content when the “real” Santa comes to her own backyard, and she’ll see hot chocolate, picking out our tree, and maybe a nice lunch out at the family favorite restaurant as enough. Plenty. Everything.