How the pandemic stole Christmas but Santa Claus got it back

Santa Claus is offering virtual calls from the North Pole and socially distanced visits at malls across the country this Christmas, giving families a personalized and safe experience during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Posted: Dec 23, 2020 12:41 PM
Updated: Dec 23, 2020 12:41 PM

Every Christmas season for the last 16 years, Tom Carmody has dressed as Santa Claus and "ho, ho, ho-ed" his way into the hearts of countless children at malls and schools across the country.

This year, however, he sits behind a computer screen in Westminster, Colorado, where he lives -- in his glorious red and white outfit and sensational beard -- waiting for his next "Meet With Santa" Zoom session to begin.

"It's maintaining magic," Carmody told CNN. "Santa is a magical, magical character and he is built around magic. It's up to us as Santas to recreate that magic without that physical touch. So, yes, we're thinking outside the box this year."

Christmas is just days away, but it couldn't come soon enough for the men and women who play the beloved character at malls, department stores and town squares across the United States.

Unlike previous years, where they welcomed children into their laps, listened to them rattle off their wish lists and posed for photographs, Santas have had to maintain a safe distance from kids to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

It hasn't been easy.

"Is meeting them on Zoom the same as holding a child on your lap? No," Carmody said. "The personal touch is very much missed by the children and Santa."

"There's a connection when you have that touch, but you can create it virtually if you think about it from a child's perspective," he added. "And it's necessary, because many Santas are very vulnerable to the virus and they want to live. We want to protect ourselves, but we also want to protect these children and bring them that special connection."

More than 17 million Americans have contracted the coronavirus, and over 310,000 have died from Covid-19. Families in every state have lost loved ones, and nearly everyone has been impacted by stay-at-home orders, school closures or business shutdowns. While vaccines are being developed and administered, the pandemic is still a long way from being controlled.

With such a backdrop, traditional Christmas cheer is understandably muted this year. But Santas are committed to keeping the holiday spirit alive.

Across the country, they're finding innovative ways to wish children and adults a very Merry Christmas.

Creating Christmas magic

When it became clear that the pandemic wasn't going to end by Christmas, Carmody began brainstorming ways to bring Santa to life without breaking social distancing guidelines.

The schools where he works had him sit behind a barrier, where he could safely wave to children as they passed by. But Carmody says it wasn't enough. He could tell how badly the kids wanted to hug him.

To recreate the intimate connection, Carmody began hosting virtual meetings on Zoom, where he speaks with children and their parents. They include the typical chatter: "Have you been a good boy or girl?" and "What would you like Santa to bring you?"

But Carmody says children have also expressed their worries about the pandemic. He says he does his best to assuage their fears.

Carmody has also started a new Christmas tradition in Westminster.

Every week, he sets up a giant sleigh -- complete with gifts and stockings and reindeer -- that his wife pulls with her car.

Children and their parents stand outside their homes and wave as he makes his way through the Denver suburb, delighting families with his bright smile and jolly laughter.

"I have received so many messages from families saying how the children are depressed and how terribly sad they've been," Carmody said. "As Santa, it's an opportunity to intervene and bring some joy. Not just to the kids, to their parents, too."

Helping parents feel joy

Roger Minton, a Santa from Fowlerville, Michigan, says parents are his priority.

He believes this year has been particularly stressful for adults. Many, he points out, have had to balance the safety and protection of their families with homeschooling their children and concerns over job security.

"The excitement in adults' voices when they're seeing and talking to Santa, that's really why I do it," Minton said. "To bring a sense of joy. It allows them to forget their stresses for a moment and have fun, just be a kid, because we're all kids at heart at the end of the day."

Any other year, he and his wife, Erica, would dress as Mr. and Mrs. Claus and spend the holiday season making crafts, decorating cookies and posing for family photos. But with the pandemic, they too have taken their festivities online.

They use video chat to check in on families -- not just to hear wish lists, but to encourage parents to remain steadfast in the face of so much uncertainty. The Mintons say the experience has been even more fulfilling than prior years.

"We feel this year is more impactful than normal years," Minton said. "Having a parent tell you, 'Thank you for bringing us some normalcy,' that's pretty awesome. It's all about the emotional connection, and letting families and their kids know that it's okay, Santa's still here. It means a lot to us."

Encouraging families to stay safe

Larry Jefferson, the first African American to play Santa at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, has used his position to spread Christmas cheer. But he's also educating families about the pandemic.

At the start of the season, he hosted in-person visits at the mall. However, protocols were different than previous years.

Jefferson greeted families from behind a plexiglass window in his Christmas cabin. Visitors were required to "Santa-tize" their hands and have their temperatures checked. And anyone over 5 years old was required to wear a face mask at all times except for during the photo shoot. Only Santa remained unmasked.

While the changes may seem daunting, Jefferson, who has played Santa for 21 years, says they provide an opportunity to teach and encourage children to stay safe.

"Kids listen to Santa. The parents know it, we all know it," Jefferson said. "The kids today are very aware of the virus, so the last thing I always ask them is, 'Are you washing your hands for 20 seconds every day? Are you wearing your mask when you go outside?' And they say 'yes.' Even the 2-year-olds say 'yes.'"

State restrictions halted in-person visits on November 21, forcing visits online. But Jefferson is determined to not let it spoil Christmas.

"We, as Americans, have to learn how to adapt and overcome. Yes it feels different, very different, but it's still Christmas and it's still fun," Jefferson said. "I love children and their little hugs and high-fives, but these children know what's happening with the pandemic. I blow them big kisses and they blow me big kisses back, and that's just how it has to be for now."

Carmody, Minton and Jefferson are just three of the thousands of Santas spreading joy this year. But like any great Santa, they're not going to let anything dampen the holiday spirit -- not Scrooge, not the Grinch and certainly not a pandemic.

"The events of 2020 have tried to steal the spirit of Christmas, the love, hope and joy," Carmody said. "And it's failed."

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