At the summer meeting of the New England Santa Claus Society there was talk that this might be a year without Santa Claus. At least at the malls and stores. And while many Santas opted to go virtual and the Kris Kringle business is way down, NHPR’s Sean Hurley says you can still find a Santa here or there, socially distanced, wearing a mask, likely behind a plexiglass wall.
Santa Rick Banks, a proud member of the National Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, sits before a laptop in the basement of his house in Chichester and adjusts the camera to make sure the Christmas tree behind him can be seen. “This year we have gone virtual,” Santa Rick says, “we've done some real live gigs as we call them. But they've been socially distanced.”
One unexpected problem with those live gigs, he says – there’s a certain kind of kid who – if you happen to be Santa Claus - will make a run at you. “I'm pretty good with the moves,” he says, “I mean, sometimes you get one that runs right at you and you got to you know, be like a bullfighter.”
Santa Rick checks his watch and launches a Zoom call with a dance troupe of 10-year-old girls from Kingston. “Ho Ho Merry Christmas!” he greets them.
A few miles up the road, Santa Dan Greenleaf sits in a rocking chair at Cabella’s Bass Pro Fishing Shop in Hooksett and asks a little boy on the other side of a plexiglass wall if he has any questions for Santa. “Why are you wearing a mask?” the boy asks. “Why am I wearing a mask?” Greenleaf replies, “because I'm here to spread holiday cheer. Not germs!”
Greenleaf hears that question a lot and tells me how a fellow Santa recently called to warn him about the kids who don’t notice the plexiglass. “He had a five year old come running full speed and jump - to jump into his arms,” Santa Dan says and laughs, “and he said it was kind of like a cartoon, where you saw the face and the cheek and the eye kind of squash against the thing. And the child fell onto the bench and then got up and laughed and shook it off.”
Not only has Greenleaf been a Santa for the last ten years, but he manages a whole stable of Santas throughout New England. “There's a number of Santas who aren't working at all this year,” Greenleaf says. “A number who are not doing any kind of in person work, they're just going to do virtual things. And then of course, our bookings are way down.”
70 to 80%, Greenleaf says, and being Santa for the month of December is the main source of his income.
As one of the founders of the New England Santa Claus Society, Greenleaf says he began hearing grim reports from his network of Santas in early May. “And that, you know, the idea that there wasn't going to be a Santa kinda scared people a little bit,” he says.
So Greenleaf scheduled a series of emergency Zoom meetings and every week through June and July the Santas brainstormed. “We bought shields, we bought see-through masks,” Greenleaf says, “I have a bubble that is like a single person bubble that you can sit in. One of our Santas has a 10 by 10 pop up tent that's a clear dome kind of thing. A couple of them are working in, like, snow globes.”
Both Santa Dan Greenleaf and Santa Rick Banks say the worst part of this year is the lack of physical contact. Sitting with kids, holding babies.
But Santa Dan says if there’s one thing he will remember from this 2020 Christmas, it’s the way his fellow Santas rallied. “Santa is finding a way to see the kids,” he says, “whether it's here behind a plexiglass wall, or virtually.”
In masks, behind walls, or just making use of Zoom like everyone else, Santa Claus in this pandemic year is finding a way to safely come to town.