At age 2, Christopher Texler couldn't wait to meet Santa. For days, he had heard all about the jolly, jelly-bellied man who hails from the North Pole. He watched patiently as, one by one, his daycare mates were hoisted onto Santa's knee. But when it came his turn, Christopher was petrified.
"The look on his face was one of desperate terror," recalled Christopher's mom, Kirsten Texler, who has the photo to prove it. "He just lost it!"
Christopher's reaction was visceral, Kirsten said. "It was like he was allergic to Santa."
But just 20 minutes after he screamed, cried and clawed his way out of Santa's lap, Christopher returned to his Santa books and crafts as though nothing had happened.
Christopher's reaction is surprisingly common. Who hasn't seen the photo of the screaming kid on Santa's knee?
Margaret Richards, PhD, a child psychologist at Cleveland Clinic Children's Hospital, says it's normal for young children to be wary of strangers – especially ones so strangely dressed.
"We really work with kids on not talking to strangers and being cautious about those kinds of things, and that all goes out the window at Christmas time," Richards says.
Chalking the episode up to stranger anxiety, Kirsten hoped Christopher would grow out of his fear of Santa. But now, at age 7, the Vail, Colo., native still trembles at the sight of St. Nick.
"We came around the corner in a large store, and there was Santa," Kirsten said. "[Christopher] crawled under my skirt and just crumpled."
Coulrophobia, the fear of clowns, is perhaps more widely accepted than the fear of Santa. But the figures share similar disconcerting features, including their large stature, abnormal dress and covered faces.
"He's fine with clowns," Kirsten said of Christopher. "He's a happy, easygoing, smart little kid. I've never seen him react this way with anything or anyone else!"
Richards said she has never met a child she would consider truly Santa-phobic.
"We would start to get concerned if a child was avoiding any mention or pictures of Santa," Richards said. However, even a mild fear of Santa, seasonal as it might be, should not be taken lightly.
"You want Santa to be a good experience for children," Richards said. "You want to help them over that anxiety."
The key to overcoming Santa-induced stress, Richards said, is talking about what to expect.
"Explaining that there may be elves and describing what an elf looks like, and telling children that they don't have to go up alone can help them feel prepared," Richards said. "And it's important to make it clear that if they get in line and change their mind, that's OK."
But if, like Christopher, a child wants to be nowhere near Santa, there are other ways to get in touch.
"They can write letter or draw a picture," Richards said. "Parents should make sure their children know Santa will still get the message."
And for parents who have their hearts set on a photo of their tot with Santa, Richards says not to force it.
"It's not going to be a great picture anyway," she said, describing the famous scene of a screaming child and a helpless Santa. There are other ways to get a photo that symbolizes Christmas with little ones. "It's an opportunity to create different traditions," Richards said.