As a Jew, I can’t say that Christmas is personally relatable. But as a child, watching other kids celebrate their holiday with someone who could speak to them, hold them in their laps, and listen to them, I was envious. It wasn't my holiday, but Santa seemed real.
Of course, Santa is real. And this year, so are the constraints in seeing him.
The typical Santa Claus experience is a nightmare for anyone trying to contain a highly contagious disease. Kids sit on Santa’s lap for a long period of time. Parents come close to take pictures. Families stand in line, sometimes for hours, in enclosed spaces, shoulder to shoulder. Hands meet. Beards and suits are touched. Whispers are heard from up close. Add in the fact that many Santas can fall into several high-risk categories and the Santa experience is not well-suited for the COVID-19 era.
As with many other experiences, children have had to adapt as the Santa industry has also gone virtual for the 2020 season. But what does this mean for Santas? How have they been dealing with this shift?
I gathered a handful on a Zoom that quickly became one of the highlights of my year. It took a global pandemic for me to have my first Santa experience and I can hardly contain my excitement.
At 77 years old, Gary Musselman had an entire career before he joined the Santa industry.
“The one thing that’s always perplexed me about this is people who do the gig just for a job, they don't give a darn about kids,” Gary says. “And how you could do this without caring about the kids is beyond me. It becomes that. It becomes a job.”
This year, Gary’s had the chance to care for children across the globe, so has Skip. With the virtual platform, they’ve spoken with kids across the country and abroad. Parents can reserve a time slot, tell Santa everything he might need to know about their kid, and set the child up with a screen.
And it's surprisingly calm and intimate.
“When kids come to sit on Santa’s lap, you have this interaction that's very close, but it’s side to side,” Jack explains. “Now we’re looking at kids face-to-face and I find they’re more relaxed and more at home. And they’re more real. And that’s really nice.”
And a personalized experience is key to that effort, Jack notes. In prior years, the Santas had to memorize this information in the few minutes between kids. But this year, they can keep that information front and center, outside of the view of the camera.
Gary appreciates having those details but he loves to talk to the kids about all sorts of topics, to make the experience more authentic. This year he’s been talking about reindeer, drawing the children in with scientific facts. “What does it have to do with presents? It doesnt! But it’s more personal than reciting the dog's name.”
You never promise anything, but especially not this year when families' personal situations might be incredibly difficult. But still, you try to answer their questions as best as you can.
“Kids have a lot more questions these days,” Luke says. “I just try to watch as many Christmas movies as I can to keep up.”
And this year, kids have been sharing more.
Several of them, and their parents, have mentioned COVID-19.
“One kid called it ‘The Big Sick,'” Skip says, though he’s been pleasantly surprised to see so many parents share that their kids have been adapting well despite the changes. He’s grateful for their teachers who have been able to help them adjust. Gary agrees. “We inherited what's been going on in the schools.”
And it’s been working well, for these Santas. As Gary recalls, he hasn't had a single crying child this entire season. Luke hasn't had to visually implore a parent to say a child’s name. Skip no longer lives in Cleveland but he’s been able to work the Santa circuit for his old Cleveland organization from his new home.
Because, regardless of the medium, the most significant part about being a Santa hasn't changed. “It’s about making sure that the kid knows that at that moment they are the most important thing in the world to you,” Skip says. Jack adds, nodding, “The important thing is to get the kids to believe for another year.”
I’d always assumed that the magic of a Christmas Santa came with the suit, the presents, and the Christmas atmosphere. But it’s more than that. It’s a tangible warmth that doesn't require a physical interaction to keep you smiling. The genuine joy on the face of a person who truly wants to make another person happy.
“You know, as far as believing goes,” Skip notes, “Some people say that it's harmful to believe in Santa Claus. But even my kids, they knew Dad was Santa Claus, but they bought into the fantasy. They bought into the joy.”