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The Best Way to Meet Santa

For all of my life, I thought eating breakfast with Santa was totally normal. Every year, he would come to my church in western New York and sit in the corner of the reception hall for a few hours. (Sometimes, he was played by my dad or my cousin Frank.) The kids would eat pancakes and drink hot chocolate in his presence and work up their courage. Whenever they felt ready, they could meet the big guy and discuss whatever they needed to. And then they would get a candy cane.

Random adult members of the congregation sometimes joined too, usually because they knew the man under the beard and had no complaint with a hot breakfast. It was all very casual. So I didn’t think it would be a big deal when I mentioned to my mother this year that my favorite minor-league baseball team, the Brooklyn Cyclones, was planning to hold a breakfast-with-Santa event at their stadium in Coney Island and that I intended to go. She is a woman who has, to this day, never conceded to me or my siblings that Santa does not exist (he finally left us a retirement note last year). I thought she would appreciate this and say something like “Fun!” Instead, she looked at me with concern and said, “It’s really not appropriate to go to that without children.”

Really? It’s not inappropriate to go to the Brooklyn Cyclones’ stadium at other times without children, but as soon as Santa gets there, I’m banned? I found myself polling friends and people at work about whether it was okay for me to go, and then I received a second surprise: Many people in my life hadn’t heard of breakfast with Santa at all. “Maybe it’s a Rust Belt or northern thing?” one suggested. Pancakes and Santa? A regional thing? A regional thing and only for children?

I contacted a Santa Claus expert—Jacqueline Woolley, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who was at the time preparing for an academic conference about Santa—in hopes of finding some backup. She had never heard of breakfast with Santa. “When you mentioned it, I looked online and apparently it’s been around for many years,” she told me.

It has, all over the country, and I love it. But I’m now experiencing a small personal crisis. I don’t think I’m what one of my friends called a “Christmas adult,” a seasonal version of the so-called Disney adults who are obsessed with the Magic Kingdom. I think I’m just a woman who enjoys a special little outing at Christmastime. So, I decided to go to breakfast with Santa by myself this year in defiance of all those closest to me. The idea was to revisit a childhood tradition with the mind of a grown-up to see if it held up—and to see if partaking felt “inappropriate.” (The idea was also: pancakes on The Atlantic’s dime.) Could a case be made for breakfast with Santa, not just for children but for everyone?

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To maximize the intensity of the experience, I picked the breakfast with Santa on the sixth floor of Macy’s, the famous department store in Midtown Manhattan—arguably the birthplace of the modern concept of interacting one-on-one with Santa Claus (and of the set of Miracle on 34th Street, a charming but ultimately evil movie about manipulating your mother into leaving a gorgeous Manhattan apartment to move to Long Island). Breakfast would be $75—or $85 if I wanted a seat by the windows, which I did. I got an 8:30 a.m. reservation on Saturday.

One thing I couldn’t consider in so many words as a kid was the fact that Santa is an adult, a stranger, and a celebrity. Most people, if they’re normal, aren’t comfortable walking into a new room and immediately approaching someone like that with the goal of asking them for something. The idea of the breakfast is that you get a longer festive experience, plenty of time to adjust to your surroundings and to the task at hand before executing it. “Santa is not just a stranger,” the child psychologist and writer Cara Goodwin pointed out when I posed this to her. From the perspective of a child, he’s also a stranger who is potentially judging them.

Goodwin takes her own kids to a breakfast with Santa at a hotel in Charlottesville, Virginia. “Even if they’re not excited to meet Santa, you can say, ‘Okay, well, we’re going to have pancakes.’ That could be something they are motivated to do.” Then, while they’re eating their pancakes, Santa is just kind of walking around, so they get a chance to see him before they have to talk with him. This should take off some of the pressure, though the strategy is not without risk, obviously: If a kid is already starting to wonder whether Santa is real, they may find it suspicious that Santa is eating breakfast with them at a random hotel in Virginia.

This wouldn’t be an issue for me, because, if the real Santa were going to have breakfast somewhere, the Macy’s in New York City would actually make sense. But thinking about the pancakes did help me get out the door. To avoid seeming overzealous, I wore a black turtleneck and an ankle-length brown skirt—one of the drearier outfits that has ever been worn to a breakfast with Santa. On the way to Manhattan, I watched a YouTube video of a previous breakfast with Santa at Macy’s to see if anybody was eating alone. The answer was no.

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I was seated, naturally, in between two families with young children. A little girl to my right, who was wearing the same red dress as her sister (classic) was trying to eat the whole ball of butter from the middle of the table (also classic). Three beautiful carolers in chic little white jackets, red gloves, and full stage makeup came over to sing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” to our table cluster. They were great. I thought they must be among the hardest-working women in New York City show business, just singing their way from one end of the Macy’s dining room to the other, then back again, then back again.

I was sorting through a generously full basket of mini pastries in the middle of my table when a woman in a suit came over and leaned down to my seated level. “Are you ready to meet Santa?” she asked me. I’m so glad she phrased it that way. “To meet Santa?” I said, stupidly. “No, actually, I’m not quite ready yet.” A few minutes later, a waiter brought me some coffee and asked, “Have you seen Santa yet?” I respected everybody’s commitment to talking with me about Santa as if he were real and actually there, even though there weren’t any children close enough to hear our conversation.

“Even if you’re not Christian, we’re all pretending that Santa Claus is a real person,” Thalia Goldstein, an associate professor at George Mason University who co-authored a 2016 study with Woolley on belief in Santa Claus, told me. (There is a rich body of academic research on the psychology of Santa Claus, going back to at least the 1970s.) Goldstein referred to Santa Claus as a type of “cultural pretend play” that both kids and adults engage in. Like the professionals at Macy’s, she argued, everyone makes casual reference to Santa as a basic fact of the world. (This reminded me that, when I texted a friend to ask if she would go to breakfast with Santa with me, she didn’t say, “No, Santa Claus isn’t real.” She said, “Unfortunately, I can’t interact with Santa.”) (Because she’s Jewish.)

“We as adults enjoy the tradition as well,” Woolley agreed when I repeated Goldstein’s point to her. Then I said that I had naturally been wary of coming off as an eccentric by attending breakfast with Santa alone. (The worst part about defying your mother is, of course, the possibility that she might be right.) There’s a thin but bright line between the totally acceptable behavior of referring casually to Santa as if he’s real—or implying that he is, by, for example, hanging a stocking on the mantel in your apartment—and the much more concerning act of appearing sincerely unable to give him up (“Christmas adults”). Woolley confessed that she had once been asked—as a Santa Claus expert with an impressive academic affiliation—to appear in a Macy’s ad campaign promoting belief in Santa Claus. They just wanted her to say “I believe in Santa Claus,” but she told them no. “I couldn’t make myself do that,” she said. She didn’t want to lie on TV, which seemed weirder than lying to her own children.

Lucky for me, I wasn’t on television. Also, nobody really cares what you’re doing, almost ever, and I was enjoying myself. After my pancakes and my mimosa and my two coffees and my four or five Tater Tots and my two pieces of sausage and my bites of scrambled eggs and my tiny yogurt parfait, I was full and ready to meet Santa. I had only three minutes left in my allotted one hour at breakfast, so I flagged down my waiter and asked if it was too late. He went to find a manager. I did some nervous texting. Finally, the woman in the suit came back for me and led me over to Santa’s corner. “Have fun,” she said, not rudely, as she deposited me in line. “Are you the next family?” a woman dressed as an elf asked. (They treated me like an entire family of four the whole time I was there, which was why I was served so much food.)

Santa and I had a warm and brief interaction. We took a photo together. He asked what I wanted for Christmas, and I said, “Oh, world peace,” to which he replied, “You have to find that within your heart.” This made no sense, but it was just right. I had a new Christmas memory: an irrational conversation with a guy in a fake beard who might have been younger than me, whose presence nevertheless added a whisper of magic to the experience of otherwise normal breakfast food and an otherwise dreary December day.