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Marny Stebbins.

Last week, I was shopping at the Mall of America with my youngest daughter and stumbled upon a long line of people stretching around the balcony (which – based on the amount of strategic assembling – I assumed was for samples of free chocolate or wine, either of which I naturally would have invested my time). Instead, it was for a visit with Santa.

Having a sudden wave of mom guilt (the very best kind), I recognized my daughter, age 9, has never experienced the splendor of sitting on Santa’s lap. Add it to the long list of parenting fails that accompany a 4th child, but I do not have a single photo of her sitting terrified on a stranger’s knee. A mixed blessing for sure.

And so, in earnest, I ask my youngest daughter, “Do you want to sit on Santa’s lap?”

She looked down at the screaming toddler squirming on Santa’s velvet knee and replied, quick as a whip, “No. Do YOU?” Her eyes – wide with terror – were clearly considering the implications of my answer. (Note: I was wearing felt antlers with jingle bells, so the fear was real).

To her relief, I said, “No, no I do not want to sit on that (rather young looking) Santa’s lap.”

You are welcome, part-time Santa. I will save us both the awkward moment of when, after hours of shopping in high heeled boots, I test the limits of my fatigued quadriceps and hover-squat above your knee with a pained smile. We both know this could end badly and while I may be making assumptions here, I’m guessing, after 10 hours of holding up the public’s rear end on your knees, you may like to cash in your coupon for discount wings and a cold beer on level 3 at Hooters without the delay of a MOA paramedic visit for a middle aged-woman spread eagle at the feet of Santa’s throne in felt antlers. Tis’ the season for generosity, after all.

But, while I vote “no” to sit a strange man’s lap, my back hurt so badly, I would gladly toss a few quarters into that public massage chair if it wasn’t awkwardly facing the food court. I ask you, what woman in the world would pay money to have her torso vibrate for twenty minutes in full view of a stranger eating a plate of chicken fried rice? It’s like lazy a strip club where the dancers are so tired, they just shimmy from the comfort of pleather recliners- in tennis shoes and sloppy ponytails. (Proof, women should be consulted when considering what really constitutes a “lounge area.” See wine and chocolate samples above).

By unanimous vote, Santa’s lap is a tradition I am willing to let slide. This month, as we prepare for celebration, I try to consider what holiday traditions encourage spirit rather than stress. I have found, many traditions fall into both of these categories. Gingerbread houses are a test of my patience but the giddy laughter that accompanies a table full of unrestrained candy access is priceless. Listening to the kids recount Christmas memories while they hang up ornaments makes me mommy-swoon, but re-distributing them to the abandoned top half of the tree encourages my OCD. Advent calendars, traditionally an opportunity to share anticipation and seeded conversation, tend to end in headlocks and pillaged doors. I won’t even discuss the conflicted feelings I harbor for the Elf on the Shelf.

It is not the repetition of events that make traditions sacred, but the focused time we intentionally carve out of our routine to spend together which make it so special. This is an important distinction in a house full of busy kids whose time is increasingly splintered between school, work, friends and other commitments. Holiday traditions can evolve without sacrificing the spirit behind them. Santa’s lap is not a deal-breaker.

I’m hoping you find joy in all the unexpected moments this holiday season. In my experience, love happens in all the in-between spaces of our heart.

(P.S. I asked Santa for a massage chair via letter rather than lap. Subsequently, my husband asked for a gift card to SkyDragon Chinese Restaurant. Apparently, the mall is onto something…).

Marny Stebbins lives in Stillwater with her husband and four children. She is a staunch believer in early bedtimes, caffeine enhancement and humor therapy.

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