Meeting Santa in a mall is a rite of passage for many children, but for some, it could be nerve-wracking. The experience of meeting Saint Nick creeped out one toddler so much he used sign language to call his mother for help, making for one hilarious holiday photo.
When Kerry Spencer became a mother, one of the things she most looked forward to experiencing was the annual visit to the neighborhood Santa Claus for a Christmas photo. But when she brought then 1-year-old Samuel to see Santa for the first time in 2005 when they lived in Provo, Utah, Spencer didn’t expect her son would dislike it so much he would use sign language to signal for “help” while on Saint Nick’s lap.
“We all laugh at the picture now. It is a family legend,” Spencer, 38, a professor at Stevenson University, tells PEOPLE. “Posting the picture on Facebook has been one of our favorite family traditions.”
This year, Spencer—who now lives in Parkton, Maryland—posted the funny picture on Twitter, where it quickly received more than 26,000 favorites and almost 7,000 retweets.
She says Sam, now 13, has been “pretty chill” about all of the attention, and the teen is even embracing the fame by changing his Twitter name to “That one baby that doesn’t like Santa.”
Spencer taught her son, who is not hearing impaired, baby sign language as a young child. Baby sign is often used by hearing parents with hearing children to improve communication. Since there are different styles of sign language and Sam’s signal doesn’t exactly match up with the American Sign Language sign for help, a few Twitter users asked about the accuracy of the signal:
For that, Spencer says Sam was simply “mispronouncing” the word.
“Strictly speaking, in ASL, the thumb should be pointing up, not sideways,” she explains. “As with spoken language, signs are sometimes ‘mispronounced’ by babies learning them. Anyone who has taught a baby sign language knows that some of their variations can be wild!”
While looking back on that day 12 years ago, Spencer says she didn’t notice Sam made the sign until after the photo was taken. But when she saw the finished product, she knew exactly what her son was trying to say.
“I recognized this sign immediately as the one he used to sign for help,” Spencer says, before adding that if there was any doubt to his nervousness, “his face says the rest!”