The ho-ho-ho must go on: How professional Santas are making visits happen despite the pandemic

Erin Donnelly
·10 min read

As with any year, Santa Claus is making a list and checking it twice: Mask? Hand sanitizer? Giant “Magic Santa Shield” to form a COVID-safe barrier between him and the kiddos pleading their case for a LOL Surprise Doll or new bike? Check, check and check.

Those are just some of the safety measures Santas are taking this Christmas in hopes of keeping the holiday spirit alive and well despite a deadly global pandemic that has derailed so many treasured traditions — including climbing on St. Nick’s knee for a photo and a gift request. That’s no longer an option, and even the inspiration for Miracle on 34th Street, Macy’s, has made waves by nixing in-store Santas at its New York City flagship for the first time in 159 years in favor of an online-only experience.

Want to safely take a photo with Santa? Click on the below video to place Santa in your home!

“Some [Santas] have had to sacrifice their entire season because, let’s face it, by very definition our demographic is generally in the most at-risk category every year, for even the common cold,” Santa Ric Erwin, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas, tells Yahoo Life of the challenges facing his community this Christmas due to COVID-19. “We are, by dint of our age, or underlying medical conditions, among the most threatened individuals every year [for illness].”

Erwin — also known as the “Singin’ Santa” — was involved in a since-nixed campaign proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services to get an early COVID-19 vaccine out to Santa performers in a bid to save Christmas and promote said vaccine to the general public. While that didn’t pan out, and a vaccine still hasn’t been rolled out in the United States, Erwin is heartened by the creative lengths his fellow Santas are going to in order to keep the season merry and bright at a time when people need it most.

“We’re not going to cancel Christmas this year,” he says. “We’re just going to find Plan B, C, D and E so that we can still meet the needs of as many of our guests and clients as we can during the Christmas season.”

Read on — and watch the video above — to see what that looks like for Erwin and other Santas who are determined that the “ho ho ho” must go on.

Virtual visits

As Atlanta’s “Real Black Santa,” D Sinclair is accustomed to having his holiday appearances start booking up as early as July. This year, though, he won’t be doing any in-person events, pivoting instead to virtual visits through JingleRing, a service set up by the creators of Atlanta’s Santa Fantastical to safely connect families with Santas and Mrs. Clauses over Zoom. Sinclair tells Yahoo Life that it’s an opportunity for kids to be with Santa without leaving the house — and also loop in distant relatives who may not normally get to enjoy the Santa experience.

“Say Mom and Dad are here in the Atlanta area, and Grandma is in California, and the paternal grandparents are in Florida, or say Dad’s away in the military, all of us can be on the same call at any given time,” he says of the virtual calls, which feature a festive background and can include storytime as well as photo and video keepsakes. JingleRing also offers the option of a prerecorded message, and families can choose between a white or Black Santa or Mrs. Claus, request a faith-based message or make arrangements for a child who has special needs or uses American Sign Language.

“It’s not what I expected for the season, but kids are still being able to smile and see Santa,” Sinclair says, adding that it’s also a chance for him to pass on the “true meaning of Christmas,” even from a screen.

D Sinclair, "The Real Black Santa" in Atlanta, is doing virtual visits in light of the pandemic. (Photo: Courtesy of Real Black Santa)
D Sinclair, "The Real Black Santa" in Atlanta, is doing virtual visits in light of the pandemic. (Photo: Courtesy of Real Black Santa)

But while he appreciates the flexibility the virtual visits give him, he’s eager to get back in his chair.

“I hope it’s not the new norm, because I enjoy having the kids in front of me,” says Sinclair. “I enjoy having the kids talk with me. I enjoy seeing the Santa Christmas list in hand … I’ve been collecting those for over 19 years. That I truly will miss, that personal touch of being around the children and seeing their smiles and watching their facial expressions change right in front of you. It’s a beautiful thing. But it’s still the holiday and it’s still about celebrating the birth of Christ, so I think it’s still going to be OK.”

Other virtual visit options this year include live sessions through the retailer Sam’s Club, StoryFile’s Ask Santa!, billed as the first AI Santa experience, and Santa’s Club, which includes a personal video chat invitation sent “from the North Pole.”

In-store snow globes and “igloos”

Like Sinclair, Santa Keith Eldridge will for the most part be doing virtual visits in lieu of the private parties and other in-person events that typically account for 90 percent of his business. That’s largely due to concerns about COVID-19 and a reduction in gatherings, of course, but also various state guidelines. As a Manchester, N.H., resident, Eldridge says he’s used to zipping around New England for his appearances, but with neighboring states like Vermont and Massachusetts calling for visitors to quarantine, that’s no longer feasible and he’s had to decline some gigs.

“Last year a good amount of my visits were down in Massachusetts, but this year I will offer the option of virtual or pass along the lead to another Santa who is in the area who is able to visit them,” Eldridge says. “I want everyone to remain safe this holiday season. Should that mean I have to turn down doing visits, then that is just the way it will have to be.”

But the Santa is seeing a couple of his retail clients stick to their traditional holiday plans — with a 2020 twist. One event will be made into a drive-through Santa experience, with him greeting cars as they pass through. The other is an in-person appearance which will see him swap out his usual bench in favor of a protective “igloo” with a clear plastic front and sides, which he plans to jazz up with festive decorations. It will allow him to connect with kids in person, but it won’t be without some logistical flaws, he notes.

“Those coming to visit will need to wear masks, which will be a challenge in hearing what the more timid are saying as we talk,” he says. “Photos will be a slight challenge as well. There will be no sitting on Santa’s knee, and with the plastic, a camera flash could ruin the picture.”

Many Santas, including the "Seattle Santa" pictured here, will be sitting in plastic snow globes or "igloos" in order to ensure social distancing. (Photo: David Ryder/Getty Images)
Many Santas, including the "Seattle Santa" pictured here, will be sitting in plastic snow globes or "igloos" in order to ensure social distancing. (Photo: David Ryder/Getty Images)

But fake igloos and similar snow globe set-ups have become a common workaround for events and retailers looking to maintain some semblance of the traditional North Pole photo op. The hunting and fishing retailer Bass Pro Shops has installed acrylic barrier screens (dubbed the “Magic Santa Shield”) and required temperature checks for its reservations-only Santa’s Wonderland, cleaned regularly by “Santa’s Sanitization Squad.” Simon Property Group, the largest mall operator in the United States, has partnered with the Cherry Hill photo experience program for its socially distanced shoots, which will follow COVID-19 guidelines requiring face coverings for Santas, staffers and all guests aged 2 and up; temperature screenings for Santa; disinfection of Santa’s suit between shifts; a ban on sitting on Santa’s lap and other risk-mitigating measures.

And Brookfield Properties, the country’s second biggest mall operator, told CNN Business earlier this year that 134 out of its 150 malls would have in-person, but contactless, Santa experiences, which require masks for both Santa and his young visitors in states with mask mandates. In some cases, Santa will be seated at a distance behind a giant photo frame, or within a large inflatable snow globe.

Eldridge is also wearing a mask this holiday season.

“I have purchased masks that are larger in size to work with beards and are made with Christmas-themed fabric,” he says. “This way I can keep myself and others safe per all mandates. End of the day for me, it is all about bringing a smile to everyone's faces and a bit of happiness into their lives.”

Immersive experiences

Longtime professional entertainer Ric Erwin began his Santa career when his wife volunteered him to wear a red suit for a holiday charity event (“I know where there’s a fat man with nothing better to do,” she’s said to have told her fellow organizers). But, for the first time since 2002, the Southern California-based performer has canceled his event bookings and told clients, “this is the year Santa’s lap will remain at the North Pole.”

Instead, he’ll be taking part in Santa The Experience, which he describes as an immersive, interactive tour of the North Pole culminating in a virtual visit with the big man himself.

“Virtual visitation is going to play a significant part in Christmas moving forward,” Erwin predicts. “Even after the pandemic is a memory in our rearview mirror, it’s going to be continually advantageous to have people from different parts of the country be able to join in the Christmas family photo event.”

Macy’s — long billed as “The Home of Santa Claus” — is also taking its festivities online, creating a Santaland at Home virtual experience that’ll include a selfie with St. Nick.

Why 2020 needs Santa

While the performers Yahoo spoke with are exploring different ways to safely spread Christmas joy this year, they all agree that Santa Claus has taken on new significance.

“This is going to be the year that Christmas is needed more by the American psyche than it has been conceivably since the depths of the Great Depression or the darkest hours of World War II,” says Erwin.

“This year is definitely the worst in anyone’s memory, and if there’s any hope for ending the year on anything resembling a good note, it’s going to mean Christmas, and it’s going to mean the Claus performers.”

“I think people are looking to find a little more joy, and Christmas is always the season of joy,” agrees Sinclair.

And while Eldridge notes that “this season is going to be a rough one,” he points out that “the advantage we have with it being 2020 is there are now so many ways we can still be together.” He also takes comfort in the festive decorations he’s seen pop up early, and the cheerful reactions he and his car — topped with a tree, with a vanity license plate reading “SLEIGH” — have received.

“Keeping the spirit of Christmas alive even in a year as tough as this isn't all that difficult,” he says. “People want to be happy and find some joy ... The spirit of Christmas and the optimism that comes along with it are very much alive and well. I just help to make sure it spreads as far and wide as it possibly can.”

—Video produced by Nurys Castillo

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

Read more from Yahoo Life:

Want lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.