This week, in between a visit to the Brazilian consulate to apply for tourism visas, and working on the Gadling family travel gift guide, I decided to make a trip to the North Pole. Or rather, the one on 34th Street, where the most famous department store Santa resides at Macy‘s Santaland. Visions of David Sedaris dancing in my head, I decided if we were going to do this, I might as well do it right. As I walked in the front door of the store (bustling even on a midweek afternoon), I wondered what sort of masochistic experience I was about to put myself through, especially with a person who won’t even remember it. At 17 months of age, my baby Vera is having her first American Christmas, as we spent her first holidays in Istanbul. Now as we are thinking of leaving New York again, I figured she might want to see a little of the magical holiday city that millions of children want to visit every year while it’s still just a subway ride away.
Last year, I took Vera to her first Santa at the annual International Women’s League Holiday Bazaar, held at the once-glamorous Istanbul Hilton. The annual fair is a scrum of expat families bumping elbows for overpriced but hard-to-find in a Muslim country items like Christmas crafts and Italian sausage, but if you are foreign and living in Turkey, you are pretty much obliged to go (I recommend getting some black beans from the Brazilian table, a few bottles of French wine, and hightailing it home). At five months old, she took meeting a strange bearded man like a champ, though it was before the dreaded separation anxiety kicked in, back when I could still use the bathroom by myself. The Noel Baba, aka Santa, she met at the holiday bazaar wasn’t the most authentic, but he beat the skinny Santa we saw in our neighborhood selling Lotto tickets, in a shiny suit and smoking a cigarette. In Turkey (ironically where St. Nicholas comes from), Santa is associated with New Year’s Eve and is almost as ubiquitous as in America during December, but the concept of visiting the man and asking for presents is still thought of as a bit odd.
%Gallery-173473%Fast forward to 2012, when it took me just a few days to get sick of holiday music again, the baby showed only sporadic interest in the seasonal decor rather than childish glee, and we were right in the midst of American materialism in all its festive splendor. After an intense elevator experience involving multiple store employees with walkie talkies, coordinating stroller-only and no stroller cars like parade marshals, we arrived on the eighth floor, official headquarters of Kris Kringle (from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., at least, who knows where he sleeps). Joining the line, one elf informed us, “Only about a half hour!” and judging from the relieved reactions of other parents, I assumed this to be quite short.
This time estimate was about accurate, looking at the time stamp on my photos, but included the diversionary time inside “Santa Land” before we actually saw the big man himself. I discovered this is not just a line to see a man in a red suit, it is an experience. Standing in line was like an anthropological study of Christmas: there was the gaggle of female relatives in town for shopping and holiday sightseeing, the pair of twin baby girls dressed up and looking much more relaxed than their parents about this event, and even a dour-looking couple of German adults behind me with no children. There were local families (playing hooky from school, perhaps) who come every year, bewildered-looking foreign tourists, kids out of their mind with excitement, and babies who just drooled and snoozed. A few minutes after getting in the outer line, we “boarded” the Santaland Express, a sort of life-sized train with a big bell on front, which each child seemed delighted to ring loudly, making me wonder how often the outer line elves got headaches.
Then we were inside Santaland itself, a wonderland of lights and animatronics, which was alternating thrilling and terrifying to small children. I won’t spoil it all – it really is an experience one should do once, especially with children – but the highlights for me were a huge Christmas tree with model trains circling and a large map of Santa’s route (I like tracking him online on the NORAD website). My baby loved the dancing bears and skiing penguins, but a sense of foreboding grew over us as we inched closer to the main event. Various elves tried to prep us for seeing Santa, even shooting some practice shots along the Santaland landscape. Spoiler alert: I think there might be more than one Santa, though the process of being ushered into Santa’s lodge is well-choreographed enough so you can ignore all the identical lodges and sounds of photos being snapped. We watched a family in front of us with an 8-month-old baby – still happy to play along with his parents’ excitement to take pictures of him with a stranger – and I made a note to drag my husband along next time to help wrangle and document the process. Vera began reacting like a cartoon dog going to the vet, whimpering and pawing at me, desperate to not be put on the lap of this man. Despite the best efforts of the high-quality Santa and elf photographer, we couldn’t get a happy shot.
A few minutes and $20 later, we had our official 2012 Santaland portrait (I opted for no photo mugs this year). “Don’t you like any of them?” a concerned elf asked as I slowly looked through the contact sheet. “Oh no, they are awesome! Every child needs their first crying-with-Santa photo!” I replied. I was proud that Vera had now entered the pantheon of scared of Santa photos, a proud tradition all over the world for many generations. I’m not sure I’ll return in Christmases future if I don’t live in NYC, but I’ll proudly wear my “Santaland 2012″ pin, at least until December 24.
Macy’s Santaland Herald Square is open every day 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. until Christmas Eve, December 24. Download the Macy’s app to book an “express” visit to Santa.
[Photo credits: Meg Nesterov]