It’s Christmas decorating weekend in our house. We’ve got the tree up, ornaments unpacked, music playing, strings and strings of lights that worked fine last year but are now just laying there, taunting us to try to find which bulb is burned out and holding up the rest of the group. It’s loud and messy and lots of fun.

And we’ve just finished the most essential part of the season in our house: taking our annual photos of each kid with Santa Claus and Mr. T.

I love traditions like these, or maybe I’m just a person who’s held together by routine, and so tradition is comfortable. Whatever. As a kid, the day we got out the artificial Christmas tree was almost as fun as the one where we got up disturbingly early to see what was under that tree. There was a story behind each ornament – this one was from a second grade class project, that one we got from a garage sale where the person was wearing a weird hat, etc. – and then my dad would put up the six-pointed tinfoil star he and my mom had made with a Jewish friend who helped them decorate their tree. The electric lights on the tree were supposed to blink, but sometimes they’d forget, so I’d pull the plug in and out of the wall over and over until they got back in gear.

I remember sometimes staring at the tree for oddly long periods of time, like I was willing the tree to speed up the clock and make Christmas show up faster. But probably there wasn’t anything good to watch on TV so I was just staring at the next best thing.

Some things I thought were traditions weren’t, at least not for everyone. For many years my brother would call his best friend right when he woke up on Christmas morning and the two of them would gush about the presents they’d each found under the tree. As was the case with so many things back then, I thought if my brother did it, everybody did. So I woke up my two best friends with a 6:30am phone call that they weren’t expecting, and that’s when I realized that not everyone wants Christmas to start with me shouting “WHAT DID YOU GET WHAT DID YOU GET” into the phone.


Since then I’ve mostly stuck with the traditions that I grew up with, the same songs, the same TV specials and movies, the same foods, with one excellent exception. My wife’s grandfather was born in Mexico City and used to make huge batches of tamales at Christmas. We usually buy ours instead of making them, but it’s still the best Christmas dinner.

But when our first baby came along in 2011, we wanted to do something unique for and with him. My friend and coworker Mary Jo had bought the little guy a plush Santa just to be nice, so we thought, why not have the two of them do a photo together? But to make it fully ours, we went a step further: the year before, I had watched and blogged about the TV show “The A-Team,” and for my birthday, my wife sewed me a plush Mr. T doll, using a pattern from the 80s modeled after Cabbage Patch Kids. So, we thought, why not have Santa, T and baby boy all together?

Mr. T, a baby, and Santa

He loved it, we loved it, our friends and family loved it, so we did it again the next year. And the next. When we expanded again a few years later, little bro joined the tradition too, though he looked a little perplexed in his first photo. That’s a fair reaction.

Baby boy with Santa and Mr. T

Our youngest was born a few weeks before Christmas, so she could have done one of these her very first holiday season. Since she couldn’t yet sit up we decided to wait until 2016. By then she could definitely hold herself upright, but sitting still was not her cup of tea. I still don’t know how I got her to stop wiggling long enough for a single photo.

Almost one year old with Mr. T and Santa

Note how all three of them are wearing the same onesie in these. My wife gets all the credit on that; she not only remembered to get the suit out each time, she also kept track of it for all those years, including through our move from New Hampshire to Wisconsin. It was worth the effort.

We’ve done these pictures every year since, with a few variations. The furniture has changed a couple times. Some years we remember to put a Santa hat on Mr. T, other years we forget. Last year Santa and T wore masks, because 2020. The most notable thing about this year’s photos is that finally all three kids are bigger than both of their stuffed buddies. And they are all really good at sitting these photos. They may even look forward to it as much as I do.

That may change down the road, of course. One day they will be teenagers and maybe at the usual time to sit down with two stuffed figures for a Christmas photo it will suddenly feel weird and embarrassing instead of fun and funny. And that’s ok. Not everything is meant to last forever, even some traditions. Plus, the year that one of them turns down a photo with Santa and Mr. T, I’m going to give them a smartphone on Christmas Eve. And the next morning, at about 6:30, I’m going to call that brand new smartphone and wake them up, loudly asking “WHAT DID YOU GET WHAT DID YOU GET???”

Ten year old with Santa and Mr. T

Six year old with Santa and Mr. T

Five year old with Santa and Mr. T