Silent Santa: How people with sensory sensitivities can partake in a visit with Santa Claus

Is it December already? Yes and once again, visits to see Santa Claus at your local mall, hospital, community center or wherever are in full swing. 

The hustle and bustle of holiday festivities are almost synonymous with this time of year and while for many it is eventful and full of excitement, there are those who might not find much joy in the chaos. 

That’s where Silent Santa comes in. For children (or adults) who have challenges with overstimulation in busy environments, such as a mall, perhaps, but still want to enjoy the fun of holiday activities, a Silent Santa may be the way to go.  

These Santa events are tailored for people who may experience over-sensitivity (hypersensitivity) or under-sensitivity (hyposensitivity) in particularly busy situations. 

This inability to process stimulants can be triggered by nearly anything such as bright colors, loud noises, too many people, too many smells, and the list goes on. 

Santa Claus1

FILE - Working behind plexiglass Santa (Ray Hamlett) waits for children to tell him their wishes inside his workshop. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

What is a Silent Santa

You might have heard different names for this type of event — Silent Santa, Quiet Santa, Sensitive Santa — but no matter what the name is, it’s definitely something any child who may have sensory processing challenges could potentially enjoy.  

Depending on your child’s needs and preferences, a Silent Santa could be the perfect way to involve your child in holiday festivities without all the noise, people and anxiety. 

Jacob Butler, marketing manager for Valley Mall in Union Gap, Washington, said their Silent Santa events are reservation-only and take place two hours before the mall’s regular operating hours. 

And while he cannot speak for all locations that host a Silent Santa event, his mall gives children the option to either sit next to Santa on a bench or sit across from Santa at his desk. 

And since their Silent Santa event begins two hours before the mall actually opens, there’s no music and no other people so the kids can truly have a calm yet festive visit with Santa. 

"They get about twice as long for a visit with Silent Santa, so it’s really tailored and it’s a beautiful experience when you get to witness it because some of these families have never had that great experience with Santa or they try to bring them in during a normal mall hour where you can have a long queue," Butler said. 

What are sensory sensitivities?

Having challenges processing any of our senses such as taste, smell, sight and hearing can all be deemed as sensory sensitivities, according to the Child Mind Institute.  

For instance, a child could have an aversion to how tight their shoes feel on their feet, they don’t like how their clothes feel, or could have more extreme responses to things that many might feel are slight inconveniences such as their face getting wet due to rain. 

"There are more than five senses. So you might think, there’s just what you might see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. But more than that, if you had a neurophysiologist here, they’d probably say, ‘Oh there’s 40 senses or more.’ But being an occupational therapist, I’m going to be like, ‘OK, there’s at least eight,‘" said Christel Seeberger, an occupational therapist and founder and CEO of Sensory Friendly Solutions. 

And those eight senses that Seeberger highlighted are: 

  • Sight
  • Hearing
  • Taste
  • Touch
  • Smell
  • Balance
  • Movement
  • Interoception

"We all have what I like to call sensory preferences. There’s things you like and things you don’t like. But for some people, their brain and their body have more difficulty just receiving sensory information, interpreting it and responding to it for lots of different underlying reasons. It can be an underlying diagnosis," Seeberger said. 

"There are, at last count, over 25 different underlying diagnoses that may make someone more likely to have a sensitivity or to experience sensory overload," she added. 

People with autism, hearing loss, dementia or PTSD, identify as neurodiverse, or even someone who has suffered a concussion and has recovered can all have sensory sensitivities, according to Seeberger. 

"So there's lots and lots and lots. And when we add all of that up, it's really you know, a conservative guess is that could easily be about a third of people, 33% of the population is just more likely right to experience that. I'm also going to layer onto that just the experience of the pandemic and post-pandemic. So when we were on lockdown at home, and then going back out into the world and there's lots of just that difference. And now with hybrid work and people moving from quieter environments to noisier environments, busier, noisier, brighter environments, a lot more people are experiencing that problem," Seeberger said. 

How to make an effective Silent Santa event

For anyone considering starting their own Silent Santa, Quiet Santa or Sensitive Santa event, here are some things to consider. 

  1. What are the sensory experiences during a usual Santa event and how can I tone it down?
  2. Reconsider the flashing holiday lights.
  3. Keep things quiet — no loud Christmas music blaring over the intercom.
  4. Consider the smells and maybe rethink blasting Santa’s workshop with gingerbread or cranberry candles.
  5. The power of choice. Offering children (or adults) the option to physically (or not) interact with Santa.

"It's just unfamiliar, right? We see Santa once a year and that can be, you know, really overwhelming. It's a really uneasy and unfamiliar environment. And then, I'm going to say, a sensory-rich environment," Seeberger said.  

"A meaningful memory with Santa does not necessarily have to be this expectation of sitting on Santa’s lap. There can be many other ways to enjoy visiting Santa. So I think, you know, training staff and helping manage expectations of everyone is what makes this successful. Being really flexible and adaptable, I think is key," she added.

If you’re looking for a Silent Santa event in your area, Seeberger encourages everyone to get involved in your local community Facebook group and bounce ideas off other parents or family members of people diagnosed with sensory sensitivities. 

This story was reported from Los Angeles.