Santaphobia: Why Santa Freaks Some Kids Out

Santaphobia is real. Santa can freak some kids out.

How do you help your child who’s afraid Santa will bring COVID into the house? How do you help the child who doesn’t want to hear anything at all about Santa?

And how can the Santa story creep into toxic territory when used as a threatening or shaming tool? Do you do that? What’s a healthy way to talk about Santa?

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Show Notes

Santaphobia is real. Santa can freak some kids out.

How do you help your child who’s afraid Santa will bring COVID into the house? How do you help the child who doesn’t want to hear anything at all about Santa?

And how can the Santa story creep into toxic territory when used as a threatening or shaming tool? Do you do that? What’s a healthy way to talk about Santa?

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Episode Transcript

Robin Hutson  0:32 

We’ll answer that question in this week’s episode of Flusterclux, with Lynn Lyons, the show for real talk about worry and other big feelings in parenting.

Lynn Lyons  0:40 

Hi, I’m Lynn Lyons. I’m an anxiety expert, speaker, Mom and author. I’ve been a therapist for 30 years.

Robin Hutson  0:46 

You’re here because your family has some anxiety issues, or you want to prevent them. I’m your co-host and Lynn’s sister in law, Robin, and I’m here to ask your questions.

Lynn Lyons  0:54 

Parenting can be a Flusterclux, and I’ll help you find your way.

Robin Hutson  1:00 

So, Lynn, we’ve gotten a lot of questions about Santa. And I didn’t realize that Santa phobia is a real thing.

Lynn Lyons  1:07 

Yeah. Santa baby. Wow. Right. I mean, it’s hard. And you’ll see as you listen to these questions as we go through them, it is kind of an overwhelming thing for kids in a lot of ways. And so, it’s important for us to remember that we try and make it this wonderful, exciting surprise, but truly not every child experiences that.

Robin Hutson  1:38 

I have the first question here.

Lynn Lyons

All right, I’m ready.

Robin Hutson  1:38 

My 10 year old still believes in Santa but recently asked if Santa was still going to come into our house to deliver presence during the pandemic. My son is afraid of Santa bringing the virus into our house. He did not by my initial response that Santa was magic and wouldn’t be a carrier thoughts on how to spend this. So, as we approach the holidays, my son will feel comfortable with our usual traditions.

Lynn Lyons  2:04 

Okay, so here’s the thing, 10-year-olds, oftentimes, like eight 910 11, they’re sort of in this in between place where they know, right, and I’m making finger quotes, they know that Santa doesn’t exist, but they really aren’t ready to let it go yet. So, they’re sort of going to play along with the game, because 10-year-olds, they’re no longer in that place of magical thinking that little kids are in that we can throw anything at them. And they’ll believe it. So, I’m guessing mom that he probably is in that in between place, it would be surprising if he wasn’t.

And this is not an unusual thing I had a little kindergartner asked me the other day, if she thought that Santa was going to wear a mask when he came to see all the houses and I said I think that he’s magic. And so, he is he doesn’t get COVID.

So, I use the same strategy that you used. I asked her if she thought that the reindeer is also would have that magic. And she thought that was the stupidest thing ever, that reindeers would be immune to COVID. I don’t know how she made that distinction. But it was cute as she’s cute as a button. I don’t know if you’re if your child is a worrier, if he’s been really worried about COVID, if this has been something that he’s been talking about a lot in terms of his worry about COVID.

But I think you just have to very matter of factly say if you want to continue the belief in Santa tradition for a few more years, and that’s totally fine. To say, look, this is the deal. You’re picking and choosing what you’re going to believe or not believe about Santa is magic. I have read and Dr. Fauci has said that Santa is immune to the COVID. Right, I saw it Dr. Fauci made an announcement.

And so, I think if you’re worrying about that now, you know, I think I think we just got to go with that. And then just very matter of factly, move on from it, if he won’t let it go. And if this is something he’s worrying about, then he’s I would suspect that this isn’t just the only place where he worries about things. And he’s seeking a lot of reassurance, the episode that we just did a few weeks ago on the difference between internal and external reassurance. If you haven’t listened to that, I would go back and listen to it again. Because that might help you have some tips on how to break this pattern.

Robin Hutson  4:08 

Yeah, this one’s tough, because if this weren’t about Santa, and it was about other fears about the pandemic, when, you know, of course, everyone’s handling those in different ways at their own age level. It’s hard to combine Santa and science, right.

Lynn Lyons  4:23 

Yeah, I mean, that’s the interesting thing like it, you know, like, well, you’re you don’t believe that he’s immune to the virus, but you believe that he flies a sled with reindeers. And he doesn’t. You know, it’s just this funny thing of sort of this, this little guy is picking and choosing what he’s going to believe in what he’s not going to believe based on his worry. You’re exactly right, that I’m taking a little bit of a different approach to this because you want to preserve his magical thinking.

But his rational thinking is inserting itself in its magical thinking, which is why kids stop believing in Santa Claus is that rational thought becomes more powerful than magical thinking. And so, you’ve got this question. going on inside of him, which I think is, you know, probably, that that’s why I’m saying is that he probably sort of knows that Santa isn’t real, but not ready to let that go yet.

I think you just have to say, look, Dr. Fauci said that Santa is immune. He’s got magical powers. And so that’s, that’s what we’re going with. And then if he keeps asking and asking about it, right, I would just say, look with this is what we know.

Robin Hutson  5:23 

You tease me in the gratitude episode about my need for the rational and the logical, yeah. So, here’s another way to take this, your 10 year old may be really afraid of the virus because it is so abstract. And the transmission facts about it are not things within his grasp. And he is attaching his fear of the virus on to the Santa story.

So, one of the opportunities could be find an article that talks about duration of exposure transmission and masks in a way that you think and separate from the Santa’s make him understand that the virus doesn’t have magical powers, and that there are known ways of how it’s transmitted. Do you think that that’s playing into content? Or is that…

Lynn Lyons  6:10 

No, I mean, that’s why this is a tricky one. I just think he’s really in this in between place because it told you when you’re talking with this kindergartner, and I was like, Yeah, I don’t think Santa is gonna wear a mask, because he’s immune to it. She’s like, Oh, okay. And then I say, Well, what about the reindeer? She’s like, no, not the reindeers. I mean, it makes no sense, right?

So, he’s trying to put this rational stuff onto a magical thing. We don’t have a whole picture here. I just wonder if this little boy has been worrying a lot about the pandemic and the virus and needs more information about the science of it. And like you say, he’s just attaching it to the Santa thing. If you know, the messages have been catastrophic. If the messages have been like, nobody can come in our house, because they’ll bring the pandemic into our house, well, then he’s attaching it to Santa.

And maybe you need to do a little bit of work of helping him assess reasonable risk, as I say, and like you say, learning about the pandemic. I think if he were six, it wouldn’t be so tricky. I The reason this feels tricky is because he’s 10. He’s got a foot in both camps. Yeah. But I would be pretty Matter of fact about it, I wouldn’t buy into it, I wouldn’t have a whole lot of discussion about it. I guess the bottom line is, I wouldn’t talk about it all that much.

I would just say, Well, look, Santa’s magic. And we believe in his magic, and so he’s going to not have the virus. That’s what Dr. Fauci said. And I think that Santa has the ability to deliver all these presents and bring love and joy and excitement on Christmas morning. And he’s gonna use his magic not to bring the pandemic in, because that’s so anti Santa. And then I would leave it at that. But

Robin Hutson  7:39 

Do you think that it might be worthwhile for the parent to check in with how is the family talking about the virus? I mean, I think that that’s kind of relevant for all households, right? How is the virus talked about? What is the understanding? What do kids understand with it? How comfortable are they with knowing what risks are and continue to figure out how to make their own choices to move about in the world? It could be that the virus talk hasn’t really worked yet for him.

Lynn Lyons  8:06 

Yeah, no, that’s what I mean. Like, I think that they need to pay attention to how they’ve been talking about the pandemic. You know, that’s what I mean about helping him assess reasonable risk. If the parents have been catastrophic about it, if they haven’t really talked about it, if it’s not really a rational science based discussion about the risks with the virus and what we do and what we don’t need to do, then that would be a worthy conversation. Yeah, I think you’re right. It’s hard to it’s hard to know.

But it could be, you know, just to say it very bluntly, if the parents have scared the bejesus out of this kid about the virus, then it’s no surprise that some guy coming down the chimney might have the virus and that’s going to make him feel afraid.

Robin Hutson  8:47 

Lynn, it’s nearly the end of 2020. Are you glad?

Lynn Lyons  8:49 

Yeah, of course, I’m ready for a change. But you know, the impact of 2020 will still be with us.

Robin Hutson  8:54 

You mean on our mental health?

Lynn Lyons  8:56 

Yeah, right. I mean, we want to kick 2020 to the curb, but we have to do the work. First, there’s got to be some personal reflection on the anxious habits and patterns that showed up for us and maybe got way worse. Yeah.

Robin Hutson  9:08 

Well, you’re the one to lead us out of this.

Lynn Lyons  9:10 

I’m excited for my course in January. This workshop will take an audit of the way anxiety showed up in your life this year, and then how to disrupt it in 2021.

Robin Hutson  9:18 

Do you think this is just for adults?

Lynn Lyons  9:20 

Well, we’ll do more later for kids and teens too, but I see a real need to help the parents first after the year we’ve all had. I want to help them feel bolstered for the New Year.

Robin Hutson  9:29 

Sounds like something we all need.

Lynn Lyons  9:30 

When we’re grounded, we can be more helpful for our family.

Robin Hutson

If you want to reset, sign up for our newsletter at Flusterclux.com to get all the details first.

Okay, I have another listener question for you.

Lynn Lyons


Robin Hutson

My almost four year old is terrified of Santa. Last year we agreed that Santa would leave his presents on the porch rather than coming inside and that seemed to solve the problem.

This year. It’s more amplified. He is anxious around pictures of Santa doesn’t want to hear talk of him. And of course, the question everyone asked him is, what do you want Santa to bring you this year in our house, we don’t talk about him. And I’ve even considered telling him Santa isn’t real to ease his mind. But he’s so little. How do you handle an anxious child when the world is obsessed with Santa?

Alright, first thing is that this is not an unusual thing that I hear. So, when, Robin, when you brought up this listener question, I thought, Okay, so here’s that question again, because it is really scary for kids. In a lot of ways, the tooth fairy freaks kids out, you know, there’s a lot of kids that get really afraid of Halloween.

Oh, my gosh, Elf on a shelf has probably caused an enormous amount of anxiety in people’s houses around the holidays, Santa’s the whole idea, right, so we put all these traditions together, we put all this magical thinking together.

And then when you step back and look at what we’re telling kids is going to happen, it can freak them out, and particularly if they tend to be worriers. And remember, worriers have great imaginations, that’s one of the sort of superpowers gone awry with kids who worry a lot. So, he’s imagining this big, strange man coming into your house and walking around.

I remember when I was little, when I would go to bed on Christmas Eve, I didn’t want to go to the bathroom if I woke up and had to go the bathroom, because I’ll be able to see down the stairs. And I was afraid to see Santa. The other thing we do with Santa is because we don’t want kids to come down and like see us putting the Christmas presents under the tree etc., is that we do talk about like you’re not supposed to see Santa. And we make Santa into this sort of big mythical thing.

So, it’s not surprising at all, that a little worried four year old would feel overwhelmed by this. So, it’s hard to because the whole culture is obsessed by this. It’s hard because we want kids to enjoy it. And we want them to feel excited about it, there’s a few things you can do. One is you can talk to him and ask him what parts of Santa make you feel scared. And one of the things that I do with kids a lot when they’re not able to answer questions themselves is I do what’s called sort of the universal kid thing.

So, if I were sitting in front of him, I would say, you know what, there are so many kids that get a little freaked out by Santa. And there are some kids who get really freaked out by Santa. There’s a lot of kids that feel that way. What is it about Santa? Do you think that freaks you out?

And if he says, Oh, no, no, don’t say it. Don’t say it. I might say, you know, I was talking to this other four year old. And it was really confusing for him. Because everybody was asking him what Santa was going to bring. And there were specials on TV, and there were pictures everywhere. And so, he knew that he was supposed to feel excited about Santa, but also it seemed kind of big and scary to him.

And I would say if there are other things that worry him to like, you know, some kids feel that way about the tooth fairy that it seems kind of strange that this little fairy comes in and puts money under your pillow. And you know how some kids don’t like Halloween because the costumes seem a little scary. And some people have fun costumes. And some people have scary costumes.

So, it sounds like Santa. Right is a little tricky, isn’t he? Because we’re supposed to be excited about it. But he’s also can be kind of big and see if you can get him to just begin to talk about it a little bit.

Because he’s four I understand your hesitancy and saying like, all right, look, I got to tell you the truth, this whole thing is just a made up thing that we do. So, don’t worry, Santa is not coming down the chimney. It’s actually dad and I are mom and I are wrapping the gifts and put them under the tree. So, you know, and I get that you don’t want to do that. Because he’s foreign, you don’t want to you feel like you might be ruining something for him. So, see what you can do this year.

And maybe what Another thing you can do if we’re going to keep this magical thinking alive is that you and he write a letter to Santa talking to Santa about what makes him scary. And asking Santa if he could do certain things or asking Santa about him and then have a letter come back from Santa that says, Hello Samuel, I’m so happy that you wrote me a letter. Other kids write me letters to and a lot of kids feel this way. So just so you know, and then you know, sort of go through and maybe relieve some of his anxieties.

And some of you may be thinking, Well, you know, Lynn says don’t give reassurance and Lynn says don’t play this game. Look. He’s four years old, and it’s Santa Claus. It’s just confusing to his little brain. So, see if you can work through it like that.

One of the things I wouldn’t do is I wouldn’t be really careful about saying Santa or talking about Santa or making sure that other people around him Don’t mention him or anything like that. Because that does is sort of enable this thing. You’re making it bigger than it is if you’re playing worries game by saying you can’t even say it.

It’s another example of that might be I had a child that was really afraid of Have spiders, and nobody was allowed to say spider in her presence, you know, everybody would say like, don’t say spider in front of her. And that just sort of adds to the intensity of it and adds to the idea that spiders are so big and scary that we can’t even say their name, being able to talk about it and being able to help him put words to what he’s feeling, and maybe playing that little game of writing a letter, that may be a way to help work through this.

And I am not saying that if you do all this, he’s going to be like, you know what, you’re right. Santa is an awesome guy. I can’t wait until he comes in the house. But it will be an again, remember, I like process, not content, this Santa thing is just some content that you can practice with him being able to talk about what’s making him feel uncomfortable, putting words to his feelings, and maybe figuring out some ways in which he can address his fears or move toward his fear, rather than the complete avoidance.

Robin Hutson  15:52 

Of course, I was waiting for you to say this, don’t promote elimination. Right? Right. You’re always saying don’t try and eliminate what makes us worry. So, you are consistent with that. But the reassurance piece that also makes sense to me to do the letter, because if there was an adult, who did make a child feel uncomfortable, I would think we would, we would want to model it is okay to say why you’re uncomfortable and to address your parent with that information. Right? You’re also modeling something healthy about that if there was another adult in that child’s life that made them feel afraid, you would want them to know that they could come to you and tell you why

Lynn Lyons  16:34 

Exactly. And it’s sort of like when they say, you know, well, you have to kiss Uncle Joe, or even you have to go and sit on Santa’s lap, right. We don’t want to force kids to do things that with other adults that make them feel uncomfortable, and that we negate their ability to talk about that. So, it’s really helping him put language to it. You know, he’s obviously he’s not going to believe in Santa Claus forever. But what this does give an opportunity gives this mom an opportunity to do is to work on that emotional literacy to help him talk about it. And to introduce the idea that we’re not going to do the blanket elimination, we’re not going to do the blanket avoidance since we’ve gotten some questions about Santa

Robin Hutson  17:16 

Hm. And Santa has impact on anxious kids. And this Santa phobia, you know, as we called it, I was just imagining, if Jack Nicholson’s character from The Shining simply sang the lyrics to “Santa Claus is Coming To Town.” That’s some creepy stuff.

Lynn Lyons  17:32 

It is creepy. The whole thing is creepy.

Robin Hutson  17:34 

When you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good. It’s a strange tradition around it, if you unpack it.

Lynn Lyons  17:42 

Well, and if you think of a lot of the magical sort of fairy tale things that we tell children, and particularly, you know, I mean, look at the history of fairy tales. A lot of it is creepy. And there’s this strange sort of like, “let’s make our kids afraid” thing that goes on…

Robin Hutson  18:02 

So that we can discipline them through fear.

Lynn Lyons  18:04 

Yeah, I mean, that’s the other thing about Santa. Don’t get me started on that. Right? Like, you have to behave. That’s why I don’t like the Elf on the Shelf thing at all, to be honest, is that you have to behave. Somebody watching you. And if you don’t behave, there’s going to be a consequence.

Okay, so let me just let me just say this, you just reminded me of this, Robin.

Robin Hutson  18:22 

You can get on your Santa soapbox.

Lynn Lyons  18:24 

Here’s the thing. Robin says that I say that before I’m gonna say something. Here’s the thing. Do not ever, ever threaten to take away Christmas, threaten Santa’s not coming, this whole idea that he’s got a list of kids that are naughty, and that he’s going to bring coal and put it in your stocking. This is such a long tradition of emotionally scaring and manipulating kids.

I’m sure some of you are listening and saying like, “Oh, Lynn, don’t go overboard.” No, truly, it’s like canceling a kid’s birthday party. So, this idea that Santa has this power that he’s watching you and that you’re going to use that and that you’re going to threaten to cancel Christmas if they don’t do what they’re supposed to do if they don’t behave in the way that they’re supposed to behave. I just don’t have any patience for it. So, don’t do it.

It’s like the Police song. Remember? “Every Breath You Take.” We all thought that was such a romantic song when we were 13 and 14. Well it came out when I was 16. Remember?

Robin Hutson  19:19 

A romantic song about stalking?

Lynn Lyons  19:20 

Yeah,  I listened to it recently. I was like that is @#$ up.

Robin Hutson  19:24 

Yes. Sting has said that since. He’s always like, when people come up to me and say, “Oh, that was the first song at my wedding when we danced. He’s always like, ooh, sorry.”

Lynn Lyons  19:34 

Did he write it as a stalking song?

Robin Hutson  19:36 

Yeah, he wrote it as a very anti-romantic song about the real pathology around obsession and romance.

Lynn Lyons  19:44 

Well, I missed that senior year in high school.

Robin Hutson  19:47 

You missed pathological obsession and romance.

Lynn Lyons  19:50 

Yes, I did.

Robin Hutson  19:53 

 Okay, we won’t go there. As you were saying this, it made me think like, Oh well, people who are listening to this podcast, Probably not the parents who do that. Mm hmm. But I don’t know.

Lynn Lyons  20:08 

if you’re a parent who does that? I’m not saying like, oh, you’re a terrible parent, it’s a part of our culture. It is a part of the folklore of Santa Claus. And if you did you know if that that has been done for generations, and generations and generations, and maybe you’ve just never thought about it that way, Oh, my gosh, it’s just too much pressure for little kids. There’s a lot of Christmas meltdowns, because there’s just so much going on.

Robin Hutson  20:36 

So, I think that we’re learning that Santa for so many people has been a really fond memory and tradition of Christmas, but it can go wrong. Right? Like, I didn’t realize how wrong it could go. But Lynn, you’re telling me that this is very, very common. So, when parents of young children who are still sort of determining their family holidays and traditions, what are some do’s and some don’ts about talking about Santa?

Lynn Lyons  21:05 

Well, let me start with the don’ts. The don’ts are easy. Don’t force your child to get close to a Santa when you’re when your child doesn’t want to. So, don’t do the forced sit on their lap. We’ve seen all those pictures. And it’s sort of like the American Funniest Home Videos conversation we had before. Like all those funny pictures of little two year olds screaming hysterically sitting on Santa’s lap. When I look at that I don’t like Ah ha, isn’t that funny? I feel I feel sad. So, don’t force your child to get close to Santa.

Robin Hutson  21:34 

That’s a great point. We’re so used to that being a punch line, that I do think that it’s really easy to become numb to their suffering.

Lynn Lyons  21:42 

Yeah, yeah. Because you’re taking a child and it’s not necessary. So, if a child is really scared and crying, because they’re afraid to go to their pediatrician appointment, or they’re afraid to go to the dentist for the first time, or they’re afraid to get their haircut, that’s one thing.

But this is supposed to be like a fun holiday thing. And if it’s terrifying to your little toddler, don’t do it for the sake of a funny picture of your kids screaming, it’s along the lines of what we were talking about when Jimmy Kimmel does that thing where he tells the parents tell the kids, they ate all their Halloween candy, not funny to me, and I have a really good sense of humor, you know? Yeah, I do.

So, you don’t have to force your kids into that. So that would be a don’t. And then as we were saying, don’t use Santa as a parenting tool. Don’t use Santa as a threat. Don’t use Santa as well. Santa is watching you. Because a that’s creepy, as we said. And also, it’s just not how you want to parent that you know, you’re going to you’re going to behave in this way. Or we’re going to take away this thing that’s really important to you.

So that’s a big don’t, some of the do’s are think about how you talk about Santa. And if you have a child who’s sort of hesitant about Santa, but you want to include it in your family traditions, then have your child have some communication with Santa or do some role playing with Santa and maybe talk about Santa’s in a way that doesn’t make him seem so powerful. So, in other words, I know this sounds kind of silly, but sort of make Santa’s into kind of a magical, but also kind of a regular guy,

Robin Hutson  23:13 

But also, a magical or regular guy whose relationship with them isn’t all about are they labeling themselves naughty or nice? That’s where it gets toxic. So just eliminate that part of it.

Lynn Lyons  23:25 

Yeah. And you know, talk about Santa, you know, like Santa has a wife, Mrs. Claus, and you know, he, whatever you want to say you can make up whatever you want. Maybe if you have a you know, if you have a pug maybe Santa has a pug too. A lot of not a lot of people know that. But you know, last year Santa’s got a pug and he really likes his pug. And so be a little playful with it.

But don’t make him so omnipotent. I think that’s the thing that creeps kids out. I think if you can about some other figure in your child’s life that sort of fits that bill is that they’re magical and kind of a regular guy. So, if they like Harry Potter, right, Harry Potter has all this magic but or Ron Weasley. Even better, right? Ron has all these this magic, but he’s also a regular guy.

Or maybe there are other movies that they’ve watched or things that they’ve learned about that it doesn’t make it seem invasive, and powerful, and scary. Make Santa a regular guy and a kind guy, which we try to do but we always give this little evil thing to Santa. Right. He has the ability to come and totally ruin your Christmas. He’s got a lot of power. That’s what I would do to sort of take away the scariness of it.

Robin Hutson  24:34 

There was this beautiful, beautiful, beautiful piece of writing I read once about this time of the holidays It was a was actually in a parenting forum I’m a member of, so I don’t know who to credit, because I don’t know who wrote it. She was in a marriage with someone of a different religion and the crux of it was there are so many different religions to celebrate or to take issue with as parents sort of delineating Well, this is what we do and then that’s what you do, and the struggle of it, but the essence of it is to remember that it is also aligned historically with the winter solstice. Mm hmm. And it is the darkest period of the year.

Lynn Lyons  25:12 

Mm hmm.

Robin Hutson  25:12 

All of the traditions consistent, regardless of religion focused on the concept of light, and how we create light in candles and Christmas lights or Hanukkah lights from your menorah. And there is so much about light at this dark time.

My kids are older now. And my son has transitioned out of the Santa years. But what we always say is that maybe Santa is not real. But Christmas is still magical, right? Or whatever December holiday you celebrate is still magical, because there is this really special time that everyone collectively wants to create light in our darkest time. And I think that that’s such a great theme that would really work for everyone of how do we create the most light in our darkness right now.

Lynn Lyons  26:00 

And it feels kind of dark.

Robin Hutson  26:02 

It is dark.

Lynn Lyons  26:03 

 Yeah, you’re right. It doesn’t feel kind of dark.

Robin Hutson  26:04 

It is dark.

Lynn Lyons  26:05 

It’s dark! When kids are transitioning from believing to not believing and how we help them bridge that gap. When they come to us and say, you know, Santa is not real, then you talk to them about what it represents. And why do you think Santa was created in the first place? Now you might say, well, so we can get kids to behave, right? That’s where we don’t want to go. But because Santa was a big source of light and giving and surprise and fun and excitement and connection, lightness in that very general way. Right? What does that mean? It’s a nice thought.

Robin Hutson  26:40 

So, join the Facebook group so that you can ask Lynn, your question on an upcoming episode.

Lynn Lyons  26:46 

And thanks for joining us for another episode of Flusterclux.

Bye, Robin.

Robin Hutson  26:51 

Bye Lynn!

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