With Christmas arriving in the middle of a surging pandemic, it may not be the most wonderful time of the year for an in-person visit with Santa Claus.
And yet shopping malls, hospitals and other venues where Mr. Claus traditionally dispenses holiday cheer are scrambling to find creative ways of preserving some version of this cherished — and lucrative — holiday tradition.
It will be anything but the typical Santa experience.
Sitting on laps is out. Wish lists, once whispered into Santa’s ear, are going online. In some places, burly Santas will greet children from inside structures resembling giant snow globes. Lines of families will stretch even longer to accommodate social distancing.
Santa Claus is not just the stuff of childhood dreams. He is also big business. Visits with Santa drive traffic to shopping malls and stores that were already struggling to compete with online retailers before the arrival of a pandemic that has sickened more than 11 million Americans.
At least 134 of the more than 150 malls and shopping centers operated by Brookfield Properties are hosting Santa this holiday season, the same as last year, the company said. But the North Pole is getting an overhaul. There will be hand sanitizer stations. Santa’s elves will take on added work as cleaners. Santa himself will be available by appointment only, and from a distance.
The SoNo Collection in Norwalk, Conn., will plant Santa inside a snow globe. At the Park Meadows mall outside Denver, he will be perched on a raised seat in the back of his grand sleigh. Other Brookfield centers will station Santa behind a large frame or position gift boxes as a festive barrier to keep eager children at a safe distance.
At the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., children will need an appointment to visit Santa, who will interact with them from behind the window of a specially built cabin. The mall, America’s largest, will also offer online tours of Santa’s workshop.
Bass Pro Shops is erecting “Magic Santa Shields,” or transparent barriers, in its stores to separate Santa from his admirers. Elves will be mobilized as “Santa’s Sanitation Squad” to disinfect surfaces and objects, the company said, and families will have their temperatures checked. Customers are being told to follow local public health guidelines when it comes to mask use.
Santa Claus will not appear in person at Macy’s stores this year, breaking a tradition that dates to 1861. Instead, the company said it would host interactive online visits with Santa from Nov. 27 through Dec. 24. Elves will lead children on a digital journey through Santa’s North Pole village and workshop that ends with an online visit with Santa in which families can take and download a photograph, the company said.
It’s not only retailers and families who are making adjustments. Professional Santas who can earn up to $1,800 for an eight-hour peak-season commitment, according to Real Santas, a booking agency, are adapting to health restrictions to avoid the risk of infection.
“We all check most of the boxes,” said Stephen Arnold, 70, who lives in Memphis but claims to be “based in the North Pole,” and has worked as a Santa Claus for decades. “We are almost all elderly, we are almost all obese and almost all have some kind of health condition. Diabetes, breathing problems, you name it.”
“So we all have to exercise an abundance of caution,” he said. “And to do that, we are joining with our previous clients and trying to get creative.”
Many Santas will still make live appearances, but the pandemic has introduced new props into their role playing. Santa hats customized with face shields, listed at $75, are going fast on the Planet Santa website, which sells gear to professional Santas.
Mr. Arnold said he planned to keep a safe distance from children at three scheduled engagements by sitting in a snow-globe-like structure, an oversize sleigh and a fire truck. He will also wear a handmade mask voluminous enough to contain his mustache and eight-inch-long beard. (Mr. Arnold, who said he earns up to $250 an hour by wrapping his 255-pound, six-foot frame into his Santa get-up for public appearances, is a proud member of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas.)
“We want to emphasize Christmas is going to come regardless of the current health situation,” he said. “Don’t be anxious about it; Santa is going to find a way.”
Mr. Arnold is one of the fortunate ones. With the virus raging, many Santas are finding themselves out of work this season.
Timothy Connaghan conducted a “Red Suit Survey” of many of the 4,500 or so graduates of his International University of Santa Claus and found that about 20 percent of the 361 Santas who replied did not expect to work at all this year.
“Because of their own health concerns they are not going to go out, or there is no work for them because everything has been curtailed,” Mr. Connaghan said.
Of the Santas who are working, many are playing it safe by going online.
One is Steve Gillham, a professional Santa who in previous years visited children in hospitals. This year he has transformed a guest room in his Chapel Hill, N.C., home into a studio for virtual visits.
Mr. Gillham, 65, will sit on a “Santa chair” — actually a century-old hall tree, or bench attached to a coat rack — facing an array of computer screens. When the children appear online, his wife, Debra Gillham, will be offscreen, secretly feeding him cues so he can talk to them as if he knows them, chatting about their age, hobbies and toy preferences using information provided by their parents. He will also tell stories and pull surprises out of a bag.
These Santa “smart visits” cost $75 for 15 minutes or $200 for an hour, Mr. Gillham said.
True to his Santa persona, Mr. Gillham sees a silver lining in the remote visits. Grandparents, many of whom have been separated from their grandchildren because of the risk of infection, can be invited to watch.
For many children who have accepted masks and social distancing as part of their daily lives, the prospect of a masked Santa, or a virtual visit with him, may not be surprising.
That was the case with Tammie Burdick of Fuquay-Varina, N.C., who in previous years had taken her children, Harper Mae, 9, and Asher, 5, to see Santa at the Umstead Hotel and Spa in nearby Cary, outside Raleigh. After months of remote schooling, she said, they understood why they will be on a Zoom call with Santa this year.
But there is still room for a little magic. The children have been told that Santa will be able to drop by their home at Christmas while they are sleeping, using fairy dust to transform their gas fireplace into one with a regular chimney.
“They ask if Santa is going to come,” Ms. Burdick said, “and I say, ‘Yes, he will be here.’”