Parkton woman's photo of son signing for help on Santa's lap goes viral

A Parkton woman’s 12-year-old photograph of her glum-faced toddler making the sign language word for “help” while sitting alongside a shopping mall Santa has gone viral.

Kerry Lynn Spencer’s 2005 photo of her son, Samuel, who was a year old during his fateful encounter with the Kris Kringle in the Provo Towne Center in Utah, has been retweeted over 7,900 times and liked over 29,200 times since she posted it Dec. 5. In addition, Spencer, a senior lecturer in mathematics and physics for Stevenson University, has been barraged with interview requests from news outlets.

In the photo, Santa is beaming in a kindly manner as he peers through his spectacles. But the blond little boy seated next to him in an enormous gilded red velvet chair appears decidedly uncertain as to Santa’s intentions. Sam’s tongue is clenched between his teeth, and his blue eyes roll apprehensively to the side toward Santa, as though he doesn’t quite dare look at the big man directly. But the most obvious sign of Sam’s distress are his two cupped hands.

“It's [American Sign Language] baby sign, so he is slightly ‘mispronouncing’ the word,” Kerry Spencer writes in an email.

“Strictly speaking, his thumb should be up, not sideways. Babies learning to sign often mispronounce words, but it is the sign he always made when he needed help.”

Spencer writes that because she was standing to the side, she didn’t actually see that her son was signing for help until the photo was developed.

“Poor buddy didn't love Santa very much,” she writes. “It was heartbreaking to see the him signing for help, but it was also so funny. We all laugh at the photo now. Posting it is one of our favorite family traditions.”

Spencer says that Samuel, now 13 and her daughter, Lily, now 11, learned the rudiments of American Sign Language when both were infants.

Children “can sign before they can talk,” she writes, “and it is so very useful to be able to communicate with your baby. Sam never knew tons of signs, but he knew the basics: food, milk, mommy, kitty, and, of course, help.”

This year, Spencer’s friend, the author Mette Harrison, asked her to Tweet out the photo so she could retweet it. The resulting response has the Spencer family — and arguably, the rest of the nation — contemplating the dark side of Jolly Old St. Nick.

“My daughter, Lily, is also creeped out by Santa,” Spencer writes. “She says, ‘He stalks you, he kisses your mother, and don't get me started about what happened with Grandma.’ ”

Lily is referring to “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” a 1979 song by Elmo & Patsy that describes a tragic, eggnog-fueled encounter that leaves hoof-prints on the dead woman’s forehead.

“Santa is a very strange tradition when you think about it,” Kerry Spencer writes.

mmccauley@baltsun.com

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