Visiting Santa Claus is one of those memories from childhood that never lost any of its magical glow; even as I learned the truth about that fabled man who flew with reindeers. Every year on one lucky December day, my mom would allow my two sisters and me to miss school for our trip to Santa’s Chicago HQ: Marshall Field’s Department Store, a grand landmark building complete with Tiffany mosaic ceiling. We’d get gussied up in the season’s matching outfit (usually a combination of plaid kilt and/or monogram sweater) and, along with my grandmother, head downtown.
We’d feast on pancakes beneath the elegantly decorated Great Tree in the Walnut Room and hunt for the Aunt Holly and Uncle Mistletoe figures, sweet characters introduced in the late 1940s who became Christmas mascots. We’d slurp whip-cream topped hot chocolate from the glass keepsake mugs (which my mom still hauls out every Christmas), and, following a sugary breakfast we’d float up to Cozy Cloud Cottage where the man in red resided for six glorious weeks. We’d patiently wait in line, recite our lists and proudly pin on the “I Saw Field’s Santa” buttons before bundling up to head outside and follow the animated storybook windows winding round the city block long store.
Next, we’d hail a taxi and visit my dad and grandpa at another iconic Chicago building, the art deco Merchandise Mart where they worked. Aside from typing up letters and pretending to answer the multi-line phones, the highlight was lunch at the building’s private M&M Club where I would be offered a dainty silver finger bowl before tucking into my oh-so-sophisticated order of French fried shrimp. What could be better than that?
Well, not much is the realization I’ve come to in trying to define a similar tradition for my son. The thing with a tradition is that it hinges on comforting and familiar patterns. As it happens in life and growing up, so many things have changed. Marshall Field’s is now a Macy’s, my mom is the only one remaining from that group of important adults in my family and the M&M Club ceased to exist years ago.
So, in becoming a parent I’ve had to mourn what was a bit and look to create something uniquely our own. I’m shopping for Santa. Last year my sister-in-law and I took our then three and one-year-old to Macy’s for what we thought would be the quintessential North Pole visit. While I know Santa doesn’t register with a 1-year-old, perhaps the shared experience with his cousin would someday. As was my tradition, I dressed Soren up (complete with saddle shoes), and we waited on line for an hour, examining in great detail beneath harsh department store lighting the somewhat weathered displays of Santaland, before a tentative exchange with Santa (there are several set-up to keep traffic moving) and keepsake photo op. Exhausted from toddler wrangling, we ditched the idea of a special lunch and just headed for McDonald’s. The kids loved it—really, the Happy Meal toy was probably the day’s highlight.
This year we went local. In jeans and gym shoes, our family hopped on our bikes one rainy Sunday and went to a pop-up Santaland festooned with tacky blow-up characters, fake bunting snow, competing strands of festive garland and a few tables with crafts to occupy little hands. The line was short, Mrs. Claus with her warm Jamaican accent was very welcoming and Santa was gentle and mellow. Our son was completely enchanted. The joy he found in chatting with Santa (he doesn’t even get the gift part yet) AND being gifted with a mini-candy cane was well worth the $20 price of admission. Yes, it lacked elegance, pageantry and grand tradition, but it was perfectly geared for our son’s delight, and, as a parent there is nothing better than that.
Laura House is the author of the blog Good House Guest.