Flights are booked, gifts are wrapped, and hot toddies are getting warmed up.
The holiday season is back, and this year is going to look much different for some more than others. That includes for the North Pole’s most important resident, Santa Claus.
“When the Grinch stole 2020, he took Christmas with him,” says Santa Ric Irwin, the head of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas (FORBS). The group is a credentialed 501c7 with more than 500 members.
Last year, the holiday season in Southern California was marked by a deadly winter surge of COVID. Thousands of Southland residents died, and the most effective tool against the virus — vaccines — were not yet widely available. That tragedy seeped into the Santa-sphere. Irwin says his group lost more Santas to the pandemic than they had ever lost in a previous year.
“Our final ‘Sleigh Ride’ at this year’s Santa reunion was probably five times larger than it has ever been before,” says Irwin. FORBS even lost a husband-and-wife Santa Claus duo who passed away within eight hours of each other. By definition, we are almost exclusively in the most at-risk category [of COVID], either by virtue of our advanced age, underlying medical conditions or a combination of both.”
Many Santas had to quickly pivot to new-fangled virtual operations, but it wasn’t all bad for some.
“I myself was entirely virtual, but it did give me an opportunity to speak to families in Western Europe and all over the country that I probably wouldn’t have had a chance to visit with in-person,” says Irwin.
Irwin doesn’t believe the virtual Santa experience will ever compete with the gold standard in-person visit beyond the pandemic. However, the flexibility that the online services provided helped extend Santa’s reach.
One company that produced tours across the country stepped in to create Santa experiences for families while concert halls and stadiums were shuttered for concerts.
Meanwhile, Americans continue to hunger for that full Santa experience. Demand for Saint Nick appearances has spiked across the county this holiday season.
But while there have been Santa shortages nationwide this year, Irwin says his fraternity is larger than it's ever been and is recruiting newer and younger people to step up into the role of Kris Kringle.
Irwin believes a national Santa shortage can probably be attributed to how the holidays have changed in the U.S.
“The designer, bearded Santa has all but disappeared from the family set of photos. That photo now is just as likely to be taken in the family's own living room or in one of the parent’s employers appreciation parties as it used to be down at the local mall or shopping center.”
There are some handy gifts that will make those Santa appearances safer in 2021. When Irwin and other FORBS Santas are making their lists and checking them twice this year, there will be something new on them: COVID testing kits.
The Fraternal Order was able to negotiate a deal with test provider Abbott Laboratories to provide at-home, rapid COVID testing for free for every Santa and Mrs. Claus in the country.
“That will probably manage to save a lot of Santas’ lives this year. It will give the Santas the confidence that they need to come in close personal contact with the 5,000 to 15,000 family members that the average professional Santa sees during the Christmas season.”