She was elegant, in a red-and-black velvet dress bedazzled with sequins. Her patent leather Mary Janes glinted in the glare of shopping mall lights. She was tugging at her tights. At the ripe old age of 3, Ava Azara was already a "cover girl," and she knew it. But, there was no airbrushing here.
"That's me," she said proudly, her tiny finger pointing at the cover of a book called, "Scared of Santa: Scenes of Terror in Toyland." The cover shot shows a screaming child in the throes of a super tantrum, being restrained by a very worried looking Santa Claus.
The traumatized girl in the photo is a far cry from the smiling girl who is now displaying her scary Santa past.
That was two years ago. It was Ava's first introduction to the Big Man in Red.
"As soon as Santa was in sight, it was instant screaming," Ava's mother Jamie explained.
"The panic set in, and she started to scream, but it was a great picture," added Ava's dad, Scott. "Smiling pictures happen all the time, a picture like that is once in a lifetime."
Ava is one of the hundreds of terrified children featured in the book.
It is a compilation of Christmas memories that some parents would rather forget.
But what makes Santa so scary?
"Not many men these days have beards," explained Denise Joyce, who co-authored the book.
"Or red suits," added fellow author Nancy Watkins.
"Scared of Santa" is an offshoot of their popular holiday feature in the Chicago Tribune.
A few years ago, the pair began soliciting holiday photos from readers. The response was overwhelming.
"We got hundreds and hundreds of pictures," said Joyce, who explained why taking young children to visit Jolly Old St. Nick, often ends in disaster.
"The kid is sweaty, he's waited in line for hours," she said. "And then you get up there, and all of a sudden ... there's this big, loud guy in a red suit. It's the perfect recipe for a meltdown."
It was, for Calvin Proskey. The energetic 3-year-old with a shock of curly reddish hair and a missing front tooth has had nothing but troubled run-ins with Santa.
"We took him with high hopes we'd get a great picture for Christmas cards, and he was fighting and crying and screaming and thrashing," explained Calvin's mother Sara.
Both visits are documented in a pair of pictures in the book -- two consecutive years of holiday horror.
Does Calvin's mother worry that Santa is inflicting psychic damage?
"Absolutely not. I think it's material for a lot of laughter and jokes ... and every year we'll bring the photos out," said Proskey.
"We've yet to hear from a single person who told us they have lingering issues about Santa, and they're seeing a therapist about it," Watkins added.
"My perception, with two kids, is that one out of every two kids is afraid of Santa," said Joyce.
Her daughter loved Santa. Her son, not so much.
What else have the authors learned?
For one, twin boys are more likely to scream than twin girls. Also, a festive outfit in no way guarantees a festive photo. And Santa isn't always jolly.
"I've been kicked, got a bloody nose, the kids thrashing back and, like, pow, right in the nose," said the Santa in the photo booth at the Shops at 900 Michigan Avenue in Chicago. "And thank goodness we have spare Santa pants upstairs, cause I'd be sitting here wet."
He's spent the past 34 Christmas seasons wearing the red suit.
Despite the peril, this year both Ava and Calvin's parents were willing to try again.
Ava clutched her dad's hand, but eventually made her way onto Santa's lap for a photograph. Calvin was a bit more tentative. His mother finally convinced him to sit on Santa's knee.
"Say macaroni and cheese," Santa urged.
Eventually, Calvin made a wide smile, showing off his missing front tooth. The photographer snapped a picture. In the end, both walked away with two happy Christmas memories ... almost.
"Alright, finally a smile, look at that," remarked Calvin's mom, Sara.
"I don't like my tooth," Calvin replied.
"I know you don't like your tooth," she said, "but that's a nice picture."