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Terror in Toyland: Why Are Kids Scared of Santa?

FlourishAnyway is an I/O psychologist and parent with a slapstick sense of humor.

No, Santa! I Do NOT want! And Mom, I can't believe you're in on this!

No, Santa! I Do NOT want! And Mom, I can't believe you're in on this!

Is Santa Claus a Red Velvet Creeper?

Why are kids so frightened of Santa? Do they know something parents don't? Is jolly old Santa a creeper, and we adults just can't see it?

These days, only a self-confident man would don a faux fur-trimmed, red velvet pantsuit and black work boots, then top it off with white gloves. Admit it: his style could use some updating.

And what's with that habit of breaking into people's houses? I'm surprised he's not in jail—or worse.

I have recently gathered explosive photographic evidence that there is indeed terror in Toyland. We'll uncover graphic proof that it's indeed not an isolated case of one cranky baby or spoiled tot. Old Kris Kringle has been scaring kids for years.

Now we'll uncover the truth behind the myth. We'll look at the psychology behind some children's fear of Santa, and we'll also ask the hard-hitting question: Is Santa an appropriate role model for children? You'll also get to vote whether the old fella should hang up his boots for good.

Reasons Why Santa Photos Fail

Hoping for the perfect photo with Santa, parents typically gussy up the wee ones in outfits that are adorable yet impractical and uncomfortable. Then they race to the local mall, fight for a parking space, and wait among hordes of other eager families, all roped off in long lines.

By the time the little dears get to see Old St. Nick, the entire bunch is tired, cranky, overstimulated from the sights and sounds of Christmas, and restless from their wait.

The kids are overdressed, itchy, hungry, quarreling, and haven't gone to the bathroom in several hours. (Or worse yet, their diapers are full, and their drawers are soaked.)

And as parents place their precious offspring in the lap of a complete stranger too quickly—because there are other kids waiting, you see—recount what they want for Christmas, well, they feel frazzled and ready to get the hell out of there.

But we need to get the photo. Yes, the photo. All eyes are now upon the lucky kid in Santa's lap as she is encouraged to "say 'Cheese!'" with a Facebook-worthy smile.

WHEW! And we wonder why they cry? These are just the practical reasons. (There's also a perfectly rational explanation having to do with child development.)

Stranger Danger: "Santa, I Don't Really Know You"

Stranger anxiety, or a sense of distress around unfamiliar people, can explain reactions experienced by young children to Santa and other unfamiliar people. Stranger anxiety develops slowly as infants begin to distinguish between their primary caregivers and other people.

For most babies, stranger anxiety emerges around eight months of age, peaks between 12 to 15 months, and then declines until about age 24 months. Perhaps you already noticed that nearly all of the children in the Santa photos displayed here seem to fall in this age range.

Common indications of stranger anxiety include

  • becoming quiet and staring intently at the stranger
  • verbally protesting (e.g., crying)
  • hiding behind, running to, or grabbing at the legs of a parent or caregiver and
  • demanding to be picked up.

A normal part of cognitive and emotional development, stranger anxiety signifies two things:

  • that a child has developed a healthy attachment to his or her caregiver(s) and
  • they can differentiate between loved ones and strangers.

The duration and intensity of stranger anxiety vary greatly from child to child, with the degree of distress being largely a matter of temperament.

How to Take a Better Santa Photo: Practical Tips on Easing Stranger Anxiety

  • To ease stranger anxiety, introduce your child to strangers; take him or her to places to interact with new people.
  • Avoid popular times for Santa photos: weekends and the week before Christmas. Also, avoid times when you or your child is ill or cranky.
  • Ensure your child is well-fed and rested. Take a snack, just in case.
  • Watch Santa movies and read books in advance and discuss. Tell your child what to expect.
  • Hold the child while you introduce him or her to Santa.
  • Take a favorite book or toy as a distraction.
  • Ask Santa to smile and speak softly. (Some Santas are friendlier and quieter than others.)
  • Be flexible enough to allow the child to sit or stand next to Santa or get in the photo yourself if needed.
  • Don’t trivialize the child’s fear. (Santa’s used to tearful kids.) Patience and respect start early.
  • If you still get a "screaming photo with Santa," it'll make a memorable Christmas card. You did what you could.

Is Santa a Good Role Model for Children? You Decide

Issue of ConcernExplanation

Diet & Exercise

He is considerably overweight, eats way too many cookies, and uses a sleigh even for short-distance travel (when he could reasonably walk). Let's not even talk about his cholesterol, blood sugar, and back trouble.

Driving Habits

Exactly how fast is he driving/flying? Does he have a license?


He's smoked a pipe for years. What substance he's smoking, we don't know. (I mean, he's "flying," right?)

Slave Elf Labor

His elves are demanding 401(k)s and health benefits, and they want living wages instead of all the candy canes they can eat.

Stop Senseless Reindeer Exploitation

Rudolph and friends were not meant to haul millions of pounds of gifts in one night, in all sorts of weather, without holiday or hazard pay.


Shouldn't Santa have friends his own age?

Excessive Merriment

We get that Santa is jolly, but cut the pill in half.

Doesn't Have Good Boundaries

As the global population explodes, he continues to add children to his list rather than set limits. He's overworked, frazzled, and frayed. And it's showing.

Taking Quality Shortcuts

Sources say he's outsourced some of his labor to China to save time and money.

Doesn't Keep Up With the TImes

"Ho" sounds like an insult, the red suit looks like pajamas, and when will the nice and naughty list finally be going digital? Seriously, Santa.


Unlawful breaking and entering. Bypasses home alarm systems while the occupants are asleep, chimneys, locked doors using "magic" keys, and other suspicious means.

"Oh, no, Santa, I've heard about you."

"Oh, no, Santa, I've heard about you."

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 FlourishAnyway


FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on March 13, 2016:

Peggy - Poor Trudy. And those animal adoption groups that volunteer as Santas in exchange for the donations have it rough playing Santa. The Santa gets peed on, barked at, scratched, and has to play kiss-kiss with animals who just want to go home. (Been there as a volunteer!) Thanks for stopping by! Have a great week!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 12, 2016:

Reading this again and it reminded me of the time we took 2 of our dogs to PetsMart to be photographed with Santa. It was amazing that we got the photo taken at all. Our Trudy squirmed and was definitely NOT happy to be there. The look on Santa's face was sort of a determined scowl. Ha! So pets as well as children are not always that happy to pose with a strange person in Santa clothing. :)

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 26, 2015:

PNWtravels - Like many experiences in life the build up doesn't fit the reality. Glad you let them off the hook after seeing they didn't like the experience.

Vicki Green from Wandering the Pacific Northwest USA on December 26, 2015:

I took my kids to get a Santa photo once. I saw what an unhappy experience it was for them and decided it was just total selfishness on my part if I ever put them through it again so I didn't.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 06, 2015:

Martie - A friend recently took his 18 month old son to see Santa and got the classic reaction. Hilarious but you do feel for the poor kids. I feel especially badly for your granddaughter. That's a long time to be afraid but I'm sure there's some kind of explanation behind it if she could find a way to articulate it. Have a wonderful weekend!

Martie Coetser from South Africa on December 06, 2015:

Excellent hub, Flourish! One of my granddaughters, now 8 yrs old, is still afraid of Father Christmas. Yes, his time in the limelight is over. Im going to share this hub with my FB friends :)

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on June 17, 2015:

Linfcor - Thank you for the kind compliment. Have a great week!

Linda F Correa from Spring Hill Florida on June 16, 2015:

What a great sense of humor you have. Yet under all that humor was some very true points about our Christmas traditions. I know we all have been there trying to get that perfect photo ! I like the idea of getting kids used to Santa before you expose them to the Jolly Old Elf !

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on April 14, 2015:

tirelesstraveler - I never thought of him as a big puppet. Very interesting. Thanks for the visit!

Judy Specht from California on April 14, 2015:

I am not a fan of Santa no matter what time of year. Puppets scare kids. Big puppets really scare kids. Nice work.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on March 16, 2015:

Thanks for visiting, Suzanne!

justmesuzanne from Texas on March 15, 2015:

Santa, clowns and the Easter bunny! All terrifying! :D Voted up and funny!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on February 23, 2015:

Peggy - Thanks for visiting my Christmas hub on the off season! Santa and I both appreciate it!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 23, 2015:

You certainly collected a great number of photos showing distressed children around jolly old Santa. I really got a kick out of your chart evaluating whether Santa is still a good role model. Clever! :)

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on January 15, 2015:

Susie - Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on January 15, 2015:

poetryman6969 - Funny. I kinda agree with you. If you step back and think about it, it's all rather strange.

Susie Lehto from Minnesota on January 15, 2015:

What can I say, but ... Another amazing hub, Flourish.

Voted up!

poetryman6969 on January 15, 2015:

The whole santa thing is vaguely creepy. But then again, I regarded the late Michael Jackson's view of children to be creepy too.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on January 15, 2015:

Cynthia - I did search a long time for those photos but had a lot of fun doing it. You can get lost in other people's pictures, that's for sure. Thanks so much for the sharing and kind comments. Have a wonderful 2015.

Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on January 14, 2015:

This was a brilliant piece of work (I think I may have told you that about other hubs as well). You must have worked a considerable time to get all those interesting Santa pictures, but what fun! Inspite of the serious nature of the hub (I'm all for educating parents about their child's developmental stages) I can tell that you had a lot of fun putting this hub together... I voted you up and awesome, and am sharing this extensively. Happy New Year! ~Cynthia

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on January 06, 2015:

Jeannie - I always wondered whether other parents ratted Santa out, too. My kid noticed Santa looked really, really different as we went from mall to mall. She found it strange she had to remind him of her name. And sometimes his dark hair showed from underneath his beard.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on January 06, 2015:

VioletteRose - Thankfully, stranger anxiety has a fairly brief window. I'm glad your son is comfortable with Santa now. Have a wonderful new year!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on January 06, 2015:

Vellur - Thanks for reading. Glad you enjoyed my table! Have a Happy New Year!

Jeannie Marie from Baltimore, MD on January 06, 2015:

I've always been scared of Santa, as well as anyone else dressed up as a character. My guess would be it began when I was a small child and asked my mother how Santa could be in so many stores at once. She told me that was not the real Santa and he was just some guy paid to be Santa. And so began my fear of Santa. She was at least kind enough to explain the real Santa was at the North Pole. Still, I tend to think it is a little weird to teach kids "stranger danger" but then expect them to be buddies with anyone dressed as a character at the mall. I don't blame kids for being scared.

P.S. Those mall Easter Bunnies look far more terrifying than any mall Santa!

VioletteRose from Atlanta on January 05, 2015:

Interesting! My son was scared of Santa when he was about two to three years old, he would try to move away from Santa even though he didn't cry. Now he is almost close to five years and he is perfectly fine posing with Santa. I guess its all about the age. Maybe they are more uncomfortable with strangers when they are toddlers :)

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on January 05, 2015:

Getting the photo right is all what parents think about. As you have mentioned by the time they get to Santa, they must be tired and hungry. Children maybe freaked out by the real Santa, in imagination it is different! Great hub,enjoyed reading and your table analysis! Voted up.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on January 01, 2015:

Patricia - Thanks so much for sharing and taking the time to comment. Have a terrific 2015!

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on December 30, 2014:

Well said. The stranger anxiety is a good should be afraid of strangers, sadly so. Even Santa.

It is a slippery slope to help a child prepare to see Santa because if it is the first time, he is a stranger. And we spend their how many ever years they are on the planet before meeting Santa telling them to be wary of strangers. then all of a sudden we are putting them on the lap of a stranger. Imagine the confusion.

Shared voted up and g+ facebook and tweeted

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 27, 2014:

Roberta - It is a little peculiar, and mall Santas have been known to sweat pretty heavy in those heavy suits, too. Oh, boy. Thanks for stopping by, and have a terrific 2015!

RTalloni on December 27, 2014:

Very interesting on so many levels, with some very funny points… :)

The whole santa thing has always puzzled me, no matter what the culture of santa tries to present itself as. For instance, one thing I wonder about is why parents would work so hard throughout the year, plan and prepare for such a special holiday with the kids, and, of all things, then turn around and tell them a lie that gives credit to some stranger dressed in a clownish suit for all the gifts, all the effort, all the excitement they've worked to have with the little ones. Another thing is the confusion in kids' minds…the issue you mention re stingers, they are told to be careful about them and then they are forced into a stranger's lap (one who is sometimes smelly) while parents step away from their terror. I don't get parents encouraging distrust of themselves in their children under any circumstances. At the end of the season, kids grow into people who wish for "the real santa" ?! when all the time the whole big-red-suit-guy-thing is about materialistic commercialism. All my feelings on this could come from something in my childhood that I have no memory of, I don't know, but I do know that little kids and even babies know more than we credit them with when it comes to certain issues!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 27, 2014:

peachpurple - Thanks for stopping by! He can be a bit scary, especially to a tot!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 27, 2014:

ezzly - Photos can be so deceiving. I get she wanted proof of what he could be. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, and have a great New Year.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 27, 2014:

teaches12345 - It's rather funny unless it's your own kid. Thanks for reading and taking a look at the terrified kids. Happy New Year!

ezzly on December 27, 2014:

OMG this is hilarious, I remember when my nephew was a baby, my mom had to spend hours trying to make him smile for a photo shoot ...fro the pictures you would think he was such a happy baby which he was but at the photo shoot i guess the pressure to perform was too much ! PS Well done on your score of 99 that's amazing !!!

peachy from Home Sweet Home on December 27, 2014:

Because if santa face, clothes and he looks fat, scared of little kiddos, my son is afraid of santa, he told me santa is an ugly ogre!

Dianna Mendez on December 26, 2014:

I was at the mall shopping and saw all of this first hand. Your theory on why they are scared is so right on. The poor kids are tired, usually hungry and then put in a stranger's lap. Great post and so interesting to read.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 26, 2014:

Joyfulcrown - You have so much terrified company, as evidenced by these photos. Thanks for stopping by! Hope your Christmas was a good one!

Joyfulcrown on December 26, 2014:

Oh my gosh those pictures were classic. Both my sister and I were scared of Santa when we were small. But we were afraid of any person in a costume.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 19, 2014:

Patty Inglish, MS - That sounds like a terrible outfit to subject anyone to, particularly a small child. Thank you for sharing your memory. Perhaps parents will think twice before they subject their little ones to a Facebook-perfect Santa photo. I doubt it, but you could hope! Have a wonderful holiday season!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 19, 2014:

Devika - Glad you enjoyed this one. Those poor kids are funny.

Patty Inglish MS from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on December 19, 2014:

OMG, excellent, excellent!

Your writing made me recall the horrible, itchy, scratchy, poking, unlined wool "leggings" - the wool trousers little kids were forced to wear in days of yore. The raw seams caused rashes and bleeding on the legs and the coats caused us to upchuck from overheating in stores. Yikes!

And those pictures could be used in a horror film: "It Came From the Cruel, Unknown North."

Rated as far up as possible!

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on December 19, 2014:

A beautiful hub! You had a perfect approach on this title. The festive season is so just filled with so much fun. Voted up.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 15, 2014:

russinserra - Thanks for stopping by!

Russ Inserra from Indianapolis, In on December 15, 2014:

Very amusing! Good one.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 15, 2014:

smnoman - Thanks for stopping by.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 15, 2014:

Sha - Thanks for stopping by and for that very interesting memory about your son! Have a great week and Merry Christmas!

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on December 15, 2014:

Funny hub, Flourish.

When my son was little he was one of few children who wasn't afraid of Santa. I think it was because his father had a beard that reached the middle of his chest. I think most kids who have clean-shaven dads are afraid of the beard more than anything.

Blogger on December 15, 2014:

You have posted a nice hub and I appreciate for it.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 15, 2014:

Linda - Thanks for stopping by and for your kind kudos. Have a great holiday week.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 15, 2014:

Gordon Fisher - Thank you for reading. Have a great holiday week!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on December 14, 2014:

This is a very funny hub, Flourish. It's also a very useful one for parents and other caregivers. I love the Santa photos and your table about Santa as a role model! Your suggestions for helping parents prepare children for a visit to Santa are great, too.

Gordon Fisher from Connecticut, USA on December 14, 2014:

Lot's of fun information in this! Thanks for sharing!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 14, 2014:

Fire8storm - Thanks for your kind kudos. Glad you enjoyed it!

Fire8storm on December 14, 2014:

FlourishAnyway- what a great Hub! I giggled all the way through and loved all the photos! Equally you make some really good serious points about the Santa experience and how to tackle it. Voted up!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 14, 2014:

Iris - Glad you enjoyed this. Have a great holiday week!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 14, 2014:

Heidi - What we wouldn't do for animals! You have a kind husband to play Santa for the critters, especially when he's a little scared. I bet that was a fun day. I, of course, wasn't the one in a Santa suit, but I helped with pets' Santa photos with a rescue group a couple of years and it was a lot of fun. Over the years we had people stop by with their snake, rat, ... as well as lots of cats and dogs.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 14, 2014:

Jackie - What a neat experience! Who knew that many kids felt that way. I've been one of those moms who took my photo with him and my child, but it's been awhile.

Cristen Iris from Boise, Idaho on December 14, 2014:

This is hilarious! I never took my children to see Santa. They are no worse for wear, and according to this little charmer, perhaps better for not having seen him. Too cute!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 14, 2014:

Ann - Glad you enjoyed this. You had some understanding parents!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 14, 2014:

ologsinquito - I couldn't believe just how many screamers there were. I don't know what they pay those poor mall Santas, but it must not be enough. Thanks for reading, and have a great week!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 14, 2014:

Faith Reaper - You turned out just fine. Perhaps a little scary Santa is good for us all!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 14, 2014:

travmaj - My thoughts exactly! I hope Santa brings you all you wish for!

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on December 14, 2014:

So funny and enjoyable read. I was an elf for Santa one year and wow; I wondered did any kid like Santa! Maybe the ones too big to be sitting on anyone's lap! Of course a few moms wanted their picture with him too.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on December 14, 2014:

Another hilarious holiday hub! Voted up and funny, of course.

Talk about stranger anxiety! Hubby played Santa for pictures with pets two years in a row at the local pet store and shelter. Scary, eh? :-D Even though he enjoyed the experience overall, HE was kind of scared of some of the pets, especially birds which can be difficult and fly in one's face or scratch if they're scared enough.

Happy Ho-Ho-Holidays!

Ann Carr from SW England on December 14, 2014:

A great mixture of fun and sensible comments here! This is great entertainment and I love the photos. I never liked seeing Santa either; fortunately my parents realised so I wasn't taken. Others aren't so lucky!


ologsinquito from USA on December 14, 2014:

Yes, the evidence is undeniable. The little ones are definitely afraid of Santa. The slightly older one really like him. This must have been a fun one to write.

Faith Reaper from southern USA on December 14, 2014:

Hahaha ... yes, it is usually the children under the age of two, as Jodah mentioned. For, I know, I have a photo just like the ones above, with my poor daughter at that age, screaming in terror about having to sit on Santa's lap! Poor baby. And then we go back each year? LOL

Oh, I just remembered, my mother kept one of me on Santa's lap at that age too, and boy was I terrified of that skinny Santa in Germany, where my dad was stationed for two years ...but I think I turned out okay?

Merry Christmas.

travmaj from australia on December 14, 2014:

It is a weird concept, we teach children Stranger Danger and then hand them over to Santa. I can see how confronting that might be. When my daughter was young I had a large blow up Santa which freaked her out big time. What trauma! Still, he's not a bad old chap and I guarantee he's not about to disappear. Might have a sit on his lap myself, if he promises to bring me what I want!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 14, 2014:

Bill - They are a little fun to watch. Some are more convincing (and friendlier) than others. Have a great week!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 14, 2014:

stevarino - I would bet you're not the only one! Thanks for reading and sharing your tale of Santa fear.

Steve Dowell from East Central Indiana on December 14, 2014:

This brings back childhood memories of my extreme aversion to shopping center Santas - I believe it left permanent, psychological scars! For years, I thought I was the only youngster that had Santaphobia!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on December 14, 2014:

Funny...interesting....a little freaky. I have to admit, Santa freaked me out when I was, watching the department store Santas...they freak me out. LOL

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 14, 2014:

Bill - Thanks! I'm sure you have some terrific photos of those grandkids that will be memorable for years to come. Sometimes the photos that don't go so well are the real good ones.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on December 14, 2014:

Flourish, this is hilarious. Years ago my parents played a video from when I was a child and sure enough I cried bloody murder when Santa showed up. The photos you included here are priceless. We actually just went through this with our 2 grandkids and while the 5 year old was fine the one year old was less than impressed with Santa. Great job. have a great Sunday.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 14, 2014:

Frank - These days it kind of does, huh. Santa needs to be a little more pc.

Frank Atanacio from Shelton on December 14, 2014:

I forget to say you almost floored me with laughter with this small little comment you made ( "Ho" sounds like an insult, ) I couldn't stop laughing...

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 14, 2014:

Jodah -Stranger anxiety definitely plays a role and typically dies down by the end of the second year. My own daughter wasn't too fond of the Easter Bunny. I have a great photo of her sitting next to him, arms definitely to herself.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 14, 2014:

Frank - That is quite a compliment! Thank you! It was a lot of fun researching this one. Have a great week.

Frank Atanacio from Shelton on December 13, 2014:

I never been so entertained with a hub as much as I did reading and flipping through the thumb=nail photos.. my fav is the kid looking back at Santa.. the sandy head child that was priceless.. voted awesome and I voted this as hub of the day :)

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on December 13, 2014:

Great Christmas hub Flourish. I love the list of concerns as to if Santa is a good role model. I also think as it is mostly children under two years of age that are frightened by him..your suggestion to introduce them to him via movies and the like as early as possible is the best way to approach this..get them familiar with the old fat guy before they are forced to sit on some strnger's knee. Voted up. Loved it.