Trigger warning: this story contains descriptions of child abuse.
Just before Christmas last year, I found myself in line at Hallmark, rolls of wrapping paper in one arm and my baby in the other. In her red and green pajamas and matching gnome bonnet, other shoppers made a reasonable assumption: “Oooh, someone met Santa!”
I smiled and said, “Not today.” I considered saying more, but no one wants to hear a lecture about consent and child sexual abuse in the middle of an Iowa mall, in the middle of December.
Although I adore Christmas photos—the matching outfits, the kitsch, the smiles—you won’t see my child sitting on Santa’s lap until she asks to do so.
Santa visits and the accompanying photos have become so commonplace, they are expected if you have a young child, maybe even mandatory in some social circles. Most of us have “liked” a photo on social media of a toddler protesting a Santa visit, cheeks red, eyes bleary, arms outstretched. This sort of photo has become a cute rite of passage that few people question or oppose.
But the #MeToo campaign has made me bolder. This year, I’m talking about why I could never force my almost two-year-old daughter to sit on a stranger’s knee. You know the guy I’m talking about: the kindly gentleman dressed all in polyester fur from his head to his foot, who chats with children about their greatest wishes, smiles for a photo, and then sends them on their way with a small prize, usually a candy cane, maybe something a little bigger if their parents sprung for the deluxe package.
My reluctance isn’t because I think mall Santas are more likely to be child predators. That is an unfair stereotype. After all, most abusers already know their victim. Mine certainly did.
When I was a young girl, I was required to sit on my grandfather’s lap each time we visited my mother’s parents at their Nebraska farmhouse and then later when they moved into town. My mother was the youngest of their 10 living children, which meant my grandfather was 80 by the time I was born.
My grandfather always sat in front of a blaring television in an overstuffed recliner, away from the rest of the family. He chewed tobacco and spat it into an empty red coffee tin. One by one, my siblings and I sat on grandpa’s lap, our ears numbed by the television, the smell of his chew hanging in the air.
We were required to sit on his lap. It was part of the visit. Not doing so was considered rude, ungrateful. I was a child who liked to please others, who was taught to respect my elders. I didn’t protest.
When I sat on my grandfather’s lap, he sexually assaulted me with my parents just a room away. At the time, I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what he did to me. I do now. He rubbed my clitoris with his fingers until it burned and tingled. He made completely nonsensical, sexual comments to me. Once, he told me I was going to have a baby. I was 10 years old when my grandfather finally died, much younger than that when he started molesting me. Have a baby? I didn’t even know what sex was.
After sitting on his lap, my grandfather would always give me a small prize, usually a $1 bill, maybe a $2 bill, sometimes even a shiny half-dollar. And then it was all over, until the next visit.
No one told me that my body belonged to me. No one told me that who touched my body was my choice. It was the 1980s, and most people seemed to think that children’s bodies belonged to their parents. No one taught me the vocabulary I would have needed to know to explain what Grandpa was doing to me, to possibly tell a trusted teacher or friend. In my house, words like vulva, clitoris and vagina were considered dirty. I had almost zero understanding of my own physiology.
Once, I tried to override the system. Instead of sitting for the required visit on my grandfather’s lap, I tried to sprint into the kitchen, where my grandmother always sat. My grandfather stretched out his arm, catching my hand. “You don’t love me anymore?” he said, his cloudy blue eyes watering. There was no one to help me, no one to intervene. I couldn’t even properly describe why I didn’t want to sit on his lap. I was a child. I had no choice. So I sat.
I never told anyone about the abuse until my grandfather made a comment about my breasts. For some reason, that pushed me to say something. On the car ride home to Iowa, I told my Mom that Grandpa had told me that my breasts were “starting to develop.” It has been almost 30 years, but I can still remember my mother’s response, verbatim: “He is an old man. He doesn’t know what he is saying.”
The rest of the conversation is fuzzy. I don’t know if I told my mother more, or if that comment shut me down immediately. When I confronted my mother about the abuse as an adult, she said she thought it was just that one inappropriate comment. My mother swore she always kept an eye on Grandpa after I told her that. She said that he had a condition known as “hardening of the arteries” that affected his cognition.
That explanation doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe he had untreated Alzheimer’s disease. Maybe he was sick. There is no way to know now if something was horribly, tragically wrong with his brain. What I do know is that what my grandfather did to me was a felony. He got away with felony after felony after felony.
Did he abuse other children? I don’t know. I have more than 30 first cousins that I have been tempted to ask, but even now, as an adult, I chicken out. I am afraid my cousins won’t believe me. Grandpa was much loved, much admired—a frugal farmer who amassed a small fortune cultivating the sandy Nebraska foothills.
His abuse destroyed my relationship with my body, which I learned to hate. It forever altered my relationship with my mother. I spent the first 30 years of my life trusting no one. I don’t attend family reunions.
I have asked myself many times if the abuse could have been prevented or stopped. What if I would have been taught that my body belonged to me? What if I would have gotten to make all choices about physical affection? About who I hugged or kissed? About whose lap I sat on?
This is why my daughter has a choice when it comes to Santa and showing anyone physical affection. Her body belongs to her. Not to me. Not to anyone else. I will never make her sit on Santa’s lap, to sacrifice her bodily autonomy for a cute photo.
I know many people will think my position is ridiculous. Maybe I will be called a Grinch. After all, we tell toddlers all the time what to do with their bodies. We force them to brush their teeth. We make them hold hands when we cross a street. But what I am talking about isn’t related to hygiene or basic safety. I am writing about how we show affection, about all forms of physical intimacy.
That should always be the child’s choice. And if your child says no to Santa (or the Easter Bunny or Great-Aunt Mabel or anyone else), I am asking you to respect that decision.
You are teaching your child a lesson about body safety that will last much longer than the candy cane from Santa.