The time is here when some people are enthused to see Santa Claus, sit on his lap and take photos for Grandma’s mantel.
For as long as I’ve been an adult, I’ve been petrified of costumed characters, including Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, mascots and Mickey Mouse and all his friends at Disneyland. Those huge white gloves? No thanks. I usually dodge characters like the “Ghosts of Exes Past” or hide behind the closest person or large object if I can’t escape fast enough. The ordeal can make some holidays and outings a little dicey.
But since I moved back to Baltimore, I’ve heard about the longest-running Black Santa, Santa Luke, at Mondawmin Mall. I’ve never seen a Black Santa and have been curious about how I’d react to him.
Especially since I’ve dealt with this phobia for quite some time.
A phobia is a persistent and uncontrollable fear of certain situations, objects or activities that’s categorized as a type of anxiety disorder. At least 19 million Americans have one or more phobias that range from mild to severe, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. They also don’t only begin when you’re a child. Some common phobias involve heights and animals.
Just as grief isn’t linear, neither are phobias. There are a combination of factors that can contribute to phobia development — like a person’s environment, culture and how one is raised to deal with fear, said Jon Hershfield, a licensed clinical marriage and family therapist and director of the Center for OCD and Anxiety, a private pay outpatient center within Sheppard Pratt.
When I was younger, according to my mom, I boldly approached what I thought was a replica of Ghostface, the masked killer in the “Scream” movies, at the mall. I said, “I’m not scared of you” before screaming bloody murder when the dressed up person said, “Boo.” I have no recollection of this, but I think it has something to do with my fear of costumed characters.
I remember being a bit relieved as a child when I found out Santa Claus was actually my parents. I always took part in the festive activities like pinning up stockings, decorating the tree and making the cookies. The glorified story of a portly man squeezing through a chimney never sat right with me, though. Honestly, with parents who were cops, I couldn’t understand why they weren’t more concerned, too. Isn’t Santa’s entire M.O. breaking and entering?
Since Santa isn’t the only one on my “do not approach or entertain” list, it’s a little difficult explaining why I refuse to go to Disneyland or prefer to sit as far away from mascots as possible. Poe, the Ravens mascot, named after Edgar Allan Poe, one of my favorite authors, will likely never be on my friends list. Nonetheless, people don’t always understand and sometimes believe I’m overreacting.
“I think the biggest common misconception is that a person with a phobia is overly sensitive or weak or not educated enough about the thing that they’re afraid of,” Hershfield said.
One day, I’d like to have kids, and I often think about how I’ll manage this fear if they want to approach the fluffy, inviting character and I’d rather run or hide. As far as the guy in the red suit, most of my memories of Santa are slowed down scenes of parents putting crying children on his lap. And I don’t blame those kids for responding that way.
“The experience of a person who’s having a phobic reaction, they’re not just being a nuisance, the brain and the body are communicating with each other saying, ‘We’re in actual danger here. This is a serious problem,’” Hershfield said.
I thought maybe an encounter with Black Santa could help me lower my guard because I’d feel a level of grandpa energy. His jolliness is a far cry from the only grandpa I knew. The one who didn’t really like other people’s kids, cursed almost every other word, made delicious lemon cake and ran over feet with his electric scooter.
So I decided to pay a visit to Mondawmin Mall in West Baltimore, where Santa Luke has dressed up as Black Santa for over 35 years.
I walked past the “Santa Walk Ups” sign a couple of times at the mall, pretending to be interested in sales for things I didn’t need. I finally mustered enough courage to go down the escalator near the security office. I stopped to use the bathroom on the way — yes, another procrastination tactic. I knew I was getting closer because there were suddenly more signs inviting shoppers to make appointments with Santa and to even bring their pets.
I paced next to the smoothie stand right behind the very tall Christmas tree decorated with bright ribbons and ornaments. I slowly inched around the corner and saw the red hat, then backed away. I tried again, keeping my distance before I saw the big belly, then the thick-soled black boots. I immediately looked away when I thought Santa looked at me over his tiny glasses.
He seemed harmless, but the sweat under my arms and the knots in my stomach said otherwise. It was a slow time during the week, so there weren’t any excited children lined up and ready to run down their Christmas lists.
I never made it to his lap or close enough to greet him. But I did a lot better than I thought I would, thanks to the comfy distance between Santa and me as I looked on from the fountain and spiral stairs. Plus, I was able to walk (not run) in his vicinity. I thought this was at least worth a reward of snickerdoodles from The Great Cookie.
This wasn’t a fail or pass experiment that determines if I relinquished my fear. I may need professional guidance for that. For now, I’ll practice different ways to rig games of rock, paper, scissors with my husband when we’re considering who’s taking the kids to Disneyland.
As the holidays inch closer, try not to judge the friend or family member who says “no” to the Santa bar crawl or photos with Saint Nick. Sometimes people are unpacking more than gifts during the holiday season.