Growing up in a large Catholic Mexican family in Southern California, we had big traditions. Good Mexican food was not one of them, but my most memorable was each Christmas Eve, the entire extended family – up to 75 at our peak – would gather at my mom’s house, which became my brother’s house. The Santa of the Year (this rotated) would bang on the door promptly at 7:00 P.M. The children would squeal, greet him, get a hello, pat on the head, and then take their places at the spot that would be about a foot from his boots. He was seated in a large chair, and the aunts and uncles brought out seemingly endless bags, pillowcases, and the like of gifts they had brought for each of the children. There were always gifts for the older people, too. EVERYONE got a gift because EVERYONE got an annual photo on Santa’s lap. Children have their Christmas Eves documented from being tiny babies asleep to arched backs wailing as he tried to calm them down, to the snatchers, the eye-rollers, the gleeful, the sassy, and even the flirty. This distribution and photo opp would take almost exactly one hour.

By 8:00 it was time to sing a chorus of Jingle Bells as he waved goodbye to all as the children trailed behind him before diving back into their new loot. This went on for 70 years until COVID.  Families continue to grow and get more complicated, move further away, including our own family in  Oregon.

That brings me to this community-building multi-pronged marketing idea. This year I was missing another holiday tradition, “Roush Christmas” at my other brother’s home. We started this to avoid the glut of commitments right before Christmas. It’s always the first Saturday in December. We make it every other year. I wanted to recreate and share the magic of Christmas Eve and get my mind off missing Roush Christmas. I decided to host a free Santa photo booth in our garage. Three friends helped me set the stage. My husband rented the portrait lights, flyers were posted on light poles in the neighborhood.


2-3 months out

  • Try to get a sponsor – you may want to do this earlier – they can promote to their lists and on social.
  • Create the partnership with a local charity that will attend and share it with their lists and on social media

1 month out

  • Get your Santa volunteers – 1 per hour.
  • Get your suit cleaned or ordered. Tip – each one should have their own beard!
  • Print the flyers – waterproof paper saved us her in Oregon. Pick a sunny day before Thanksgiving to post them all so visitors walking off the meal will see them. Give them to your charity and your sponsors, local businesses. Add a QR code to go to your website with all of the information and a link to the sign-up form to build excitement!
  • Get info to local churches if you want it big – a free Santa booth is a BIG draw!
  • Post on your Facebook neighborhood group
  • Post at local grocery stores
  • Camera? Do you have a good one? Tripod? Big card for all the photos?
  • Do you need to rent lighting? We used ProPhoto in Portland. It was perfect. About $150 for the night and we kept them all weekend to return on Monday. This is a great opportunity for family portraits after your Santa event, headshots, and conceptual photos.
  • Order any decorations – such as a skinny tree and lights.

2 Weeks out

  • Borrow the popup tent if you need it. We used one. Next year we may use two to have seating and make it more social.
  • Gather your decorations and test the lights. TIP: C9 lights – the best, but don’t link more than two together or they may blow! (ask me how I know this.)
  • Plan any refreshments, ask if neighbors want to help.
  • What about beverages? Spiked cider? Our Santas greatly appreciated those!
  • Gather some props – light necklaces (Walgreens), Santa hats and reindeer antlers

Day Before Day Of

  • Set up the tent, lights, clear out your space. We used our garage. Next year we are using both sides for bigger groups. That was our only negative – not enough background for bigger families that have varying heights, dogs and babies in carriers.
  • Have your suits steamed for better photos.
  • Have your sign up sheet ready or a tablet with a form they can fill out- name(s), email, cellphone.
  • Have a small whiteboard they can hold with their name to make it easy to match people up. Let them take several photos!

The Day After

  • Get right to editing the photos.
  • Crop similarly. If you used good lighting, your editing should be minimal
  • Upload to Google Drive or a private webpage with password so they can get their images. It’s OK to have your branding on the page – you are giving this to them. You never know if you met your next client last night.

What I learned:

  1. Take on a local business partner – such as the brewpub across the street we all walk to from three neighborhoods. Get them to promote it.
  2. Consider tying to a local charity – food drive, blanket drive, toys, and cross-promote with them and their lists.
  3. Consider an ad on Facebook by geolocation, and local church bulletins.
  4. Have a photo folder printed with your company branding on the back, but not on the photo – that’s tacky.
  5. Have an online form they fill out there so you don’t have to read their writing the next day when you edit and send the photos.
  6. Send the photo links from your business email to subtely tie it together, give the call to action for the charity in the same email, or shout out to other sponsors, the volunteer Santas, etc.
  7. Remind people to dress for the photo. Those that did had the best photos!
  8. Welcome dogs on the flyer – no one includes dogs, grandparents, kids in the same free event!
  9. Set up a day early to build buzz.