Some people love the Christmas season for all of its popular trappings – gift-giving and -getting, parties and family gatherings. And then there are people like Shannon Cunningham, for whom the connections are so personally and emotionally profound, they have to find an outlet for their passion.
This year, the Christmas season is uniquely special. Cunningham is fulfilling a long-time dream of professing her Christmas passion in writing. She is about to self-publish “The Santa Princess,” a children’s book she sees intimately entwined with her life and her travel agency.
The book is about Merry, the daughter of Santa and Mrs. Claus, and how she discovers her own joyful magic and decides to share it with others. Cunningham hopes the book will help inspire more people to embrace the holiday spirit year-round.
Publishing the book now is especially important to Cunningham, as 2019 is the first full year of her life without her parents – the inspiration for her love of everything Christmas. The couple had only seen a mockup of “The Santa Princess” prior to their both passing away in autumn 2018.
“The book is 100% autobiographical. I learned all about love, and the romance of Christmas, watching their marriage,” said Cunningham, chief romance officer at Paradise Vacation Escapes, in Prairieville, Louisiana, a New Orleans suburb.
Cunningham started her travel career working in a brick-and-mortar corporate travel agency, from 1989 to 1999. She broke away in 2000, using her photography skills to open her own studio. Not surprisingly, Christmas was her busiest season, as families and others rushed in for annual portraits. Cunningham’s father dressed up every year as Santa Claus for those sessions.
“We had these elaborate backgrounds, and daddy had different Santa suits each year, all handmade by my mother,” Cunningham recalled. “We had Victorian Santa, Cajun Santa, Black and Gold Santa [the colors of the New Orleans Saints football team]. It was so special working with my dad and seeing him working with the kids.”
Around 2009, Cunningham’s father retired from playing Santa, but his daughter kept all of his suits that her mother had lovingly sewn together. She eventually closed down the studio and launched her second travel endeavor, Paradise Vacation Escapes.
This time around, Cunningham started off as a leisure travel generalist, but soon found herself drawn to romance travel. “I thought it was low-hanging fruit. People are always getting married,” she said. “But as I got into it, deeper and deeper, I realized it meant more to me than just planning weddings and honeymoons.
“When I was young, my parents were big in our church. They counseled engaged couples at our home, so I was exposed to romance a lot in those years, and it became a part of me.” (Cunningham herself has been with her significant other, Rich, for 14 years.)
“But my parents never had the chance to travel, and experience what happens in a relationship when the two of you get away from your regular life, and immerse in a destination together,” she said.
With her travel business growing, Cunningham’s father’s Santa suits only occasionally saw the light of Christmas. But then four years ago, Cunningham was invited to a Christmas party.
“I didn’t like anything in my closet, so I pulled out one of daddy’s Santa suits – the traditional red one – and decided I would wear that instead. When I arrived at the party, everyone was telling me how much I looked like Mrs. Claus. I said ‘No. I’m the Santa Princess.’ I had chills as I said it. It literally felt like the words came down from above.”
Sitting in her car at a traffic light on the way home from the party that night, Cunningham Googled “The Santa Princess.” No one owned the domain name. She bought it that instant.
“Later, I was talking to Rich. I told him, ‘I have to write about Santa’s daughter, about me, and how my parents always taught us kids to share your joy,’” she recalled. Cunningham wrote the entire book in about 20 minutes that evening – then put it away.
“Last year, I was trying my hardest to publish the book, but my mom was in hospice and I was a principal caregiver. Between travel, running my agency, taking care of them, I just never got around to it,” Cunningham said.
A Merry 2019 Christmas
As she unveils the book to local Louisiana residents this holiday season, Cunningham is beginning to see intersections with her travel business. In December, she’ll be announcing a 2020 “Christmas in July” group cruise she plans to build around the book.
She also is thinking about approaching her hotel contacts to see if she can perform book readings – in character, of course – at their hotels and resorts. She wants to approach other properties about making the book available in rooms for families traveling during the Christmas season.
Lisa Sheldon, president of the Destination Wedding Specialist and Honeymoon Association, believes Cunningham is on to a potentially powerful emotional marketing source – the Christmas holiday spirit.
“The Christmas holiday can be a great selling tool for agents,” Sheldon said. “You have to realize why people travel for the holidays. There likely are some very emotional reasons motivating them.
“A lot of people get away during the holidays, and Christmas day is a pretty good day to be flying because the crowds are lighter and the fares are lower,” Sheldon said. “And for couples, you can get away for the week and wrap up your vacation celebrating New Year’s Eve somewhere romantic.”
Sheldon understands the driving force behind Cunningham’s passion very well. She is known throughout the travel industry for showing up at conferences around the holidays dressed up as Mrs. Claus. “I can’t wait to put that costume on. It transforms me,” Sheldon said.
Like Cunningham, Sheldon’s passion for Christmas comes from her childhood. “My mom loved to decorate and entertain, and it always meant so much to her to have her children around. So, it’s the same for me."
Cunningham’s mother passed away Sept. 12, 2018. Broken-hearted, her father passed away on Oct. 5. A couple of days later, Cunningham received a notice in the mail. She had filed with the Library of Congress for a copyright on her book prior to her mother’s dying. The copyright for “The Santa Princess” was approved and stamped, Oct. 5.
“Last year, I was dreading Christmas,” Cunningham said, remembering how she felt the loss of her parents more profoundly that first Christmas without them. “This year, I can feel the magic again.”