Shoppers are loaded with a mix of packages and strollers as they navigate the central courtyard of Victoria Gardens in Rancho Cucamonga. The outdoor mall is festooned with all the trappings: wreaths, garland, and even piped in carols to brighten the background noise.
Taking a quick breather from the afternoon rush is Laurie Davila. She and the family drove in from Victorville to make some progress on their holiday shopping list — and because, let’s face it, even a mall outing now counts as a fun adventure.
While some of the family ducks in a shop, Davila takes her two preschool-age daughters to see Santa. But because it is 2020, the big guy is distanced and sporting a face shield.
Six feet away and safely enthroned in a decorated and festive trolley car, Santa has a brief chat with the kids and smiles as families take selfies in front of him.
“He was very interactive with the kids,” Davila says. “He was listening, he was waving. He remembered their names. It was okay for what it is. I thought it was a good experience.”
A few places back in the socially distant receiving line for Santa is Demetra McGee. She’s surprised the jolly old elf is still making an appearance, even at an outdoor mall.
“I thought they were going to cancel Santa,” Mcgee says with a laugh. “So yeah, that would’ve been really sad, especially for my son, he’s 10 and he’s still happy to see Santa.”
Her son, RJ, says this year’s chat with Santa definitely stands out.
“It’s different to see him at a distance and not to be able to sit on his lap or stand next to him,” says RJ. “I still liked it, but it’s pretty different.”
If you really want an in-person Santa experience, he’s still out there. But since it’s 2020, you better believe the North Pole’s favorite resident is on Zoom.
In a typical year, Santa Ric Erwin, who’s based in Hemet, would have a packed calendar of tree lightings, office parties, and personal appearances. However, since nothing is normal, he and his group, the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas, are working through the pandemic and its limitations.
And yes, the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas is a credentialed 501 c7 — a professional fraternity — with more than 500 members. Santa Ric has been the chairman of its board of directors since 2012.
The organization was actually thinking about COVID Christmas long before most people had visions of holiday Zooms dancing in their heads.
“By early June, in fact toward the end of May, I instructed the editorial staff of our fraternity’s quarterly newsletter, ‘Just Be Claus,’ to suspend the summer issue and standby to issue a special COVID edition,” says Santa Ric. “And I began to reach out to all of the luminaries in the professional Santa world.”
As triple-digit temperatures gripped Southern California, they were asking how will masking work in photos and what precautions in-person Santas should follow at shopping centers. One of the tips from that special issue of ‘Just Be Claus’ was to have plenty of alcohol-based sanitizer around. Not only can you use it on your suit, but in a pinch it can work in your beard.
Like lots of people, the Claus community was under the impression that therapeutics or some other kind of COVID treatment might be available by the holiday season to offer protection. After all, Santa is older, rotund, and might as well wear a sandwich board reading “vulnerable.”
Santa Ric says that while he’s not doing traditional, in-person events this year, individual Santas vary and a few are continuing like nothing’s wrong.
But many Kris Kringles are stepping back this holiday season and doing the remote thing since kids can’t have their traditional few minutes on Santa’s lap.
One of the first to hop on the digital bandwagon was “Hollywood Santa” Ed Taylor. He’s portrayed the jolly old elf on TV numerous times and has done tree-lightings in Santa Monica and at Paramount studios.
“You know, you pinch yourself,” Santa Ed says with a smile. “I mean I would’ve never, ever, imagined myself doing the things that I’ve done — to be in a music video with Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton. That just never crossed my mind in any way.”
He had some reservations about digital visits in the early days, but as he’s gotten increasingly comfortable with them and watched the reactions of families, he’s become a big fan.
“You know at some point, there was a thought that this was kind of ‘I’ll settle for,’” remembers Santa Ed. “It’s like ‘Well we can’t do what we usually do but at least we’ll do a Zoom call.’ And now it’s like ‘Zoom calls are great, the virtual visit is a terrific thing!’”
Seeing Santa in the age of COVID, like a lot of things, starts by going online. You log onto a website, either your preferred Santa’s or a company’s, and reserve your time. The cost of the chat will vary based on when you book and how much of Santa’s time you want. The next step is new: the pre-visit questionnaire. How old is the child? Any big milestones this year or noteworthy events?
Santa Ed makes sure to ask his clients about another crucial part of the Christmas ritual: “What their tradition is pertaining to leaving out cookies or things like that for Santa?”
Once you’ve made your appointment, paid Santa with cash rather than cookies, and given a little background information, you get to meet the big guy. It’s infinitely more comfortable than any mall. You’re in your house, maybe sitting by your tree or the fireplace as the little ones have a one-on-one with old St. Nick. In these visits, Santa can take a little longer and go beyond naughty or nice.
“It’s really a lot of fun to be able to have nine, 10, 11, 12 minutes to talk with the families,” Santa Ed says. “The whole conversation is much more, I almost want to say more normal, right? It’s like we’re old friends. It sounds maybe a little corny, but it’s a little more meaningful in a sense. You don’t feel like you’re just a prop there to get a picture with.”
How often do you think about the annual Santa visit from his perspective?
Instead of the photo that’s the hallmark of the mall Santa visit (remember those Polaroids?), now families can get a recording of the whole meeting with Santa.
It’s also worth pointing out: When you have a Zoom call with Santa, he’s in the North Pole. Don’t expect to see the immaculate kitchens or curated bookshelves behind the people on TV. Santa usually has a roaring fire in the background and a magically twinkling Christmas tree. You might even catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights out his window.
And the experiences vary. Santa Ed’s visit is mostly just with him, and starts at $100 for 12 minutes at off-peak times. That can go all the way up to $750 for a primo, hour-long Christmas Day conversation. Santa Ric is working with Global Tour Creatives. This season, the entertainment company is offering Santa The Experience, which is an entire North Pole production. For somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 - $60, you can book a time, log on, and live
actors elves in a studio at the North Pole will show you the reindeer barn, Mrs. Claus’ bakery, and other hotspots. But as Santa Ric explains, that’s all a prequel.
“[Families] are asked if they’d like to drop by Santa’s office to see if he’s available for a quick chat,” Santa Ric says with a wink. “Spoiler alert: Santa is always available for that quick chat.”
This holiday season is more than a little different, but the Santas are raving about all the online offerings. Both Santa Ric and Santa Ed say that while they’re sitting out in-person events this year, they’re busier than ever. Going digital has allowed them to spend time with families all over the U.S. and the world. Santa Ed is appearing at the U.S. embassy in Poland, and Santa Ric has shared Christmas cheer with families in the UK.
All of these digital happenings have been a game-changer for Santas.
“My economic season was saved,” says Santa Ric, acknowledging the fact that Santas also enjoy, and in some cases rely on, the monetary component of their limited window every year. “My emotional season has been salvaged, and I’m really having a ball.”
This year has been one for the books, but we can all take a page from the Santas and make the most of Christmas by trying to enjoy some of the magic of the season, even if it’s not quite what we’d usually do.