Normally, working as a professional Santa involves close contact with kids from different households, something that’s impossible to do safely in a country where COVID-19 infection rates are at an all-time high. “There are a lot of Santas that are entirely sitting out the season,” Bryan, who works holiday season weekends as a Santa, told VICE. “You have another group who are doing virtual visits over Zoom, or with one of the companies that has sprung up. Then there's me. I’m personally still doing visits, and at this point in time, it’s looking to be one of my busier years.”
Bryan has been committed to being Santa for more than twenty years. He wears his beard year-round, and he avoids going to bars around the holidays lest anyone see Santa crushing a Coors. His Santa outfit includes a custom handcrafted belt buckle engraved with a Nativity tableau.. “I hate to see tennis shoes over black boot toppers, a fake beard underneath the chin,” he said. “If you’re going to do it, do it to your utmost.”
We talked to Bryan about the adjustments he’s made in order to keep himself and his little visitors healthy—including a plexiglass barrier, a no-touch rule, and strict social distancing—and asked him why he risked a literal pandemic to don the famous red suit and make a running attempt at spreading Christmas cheer—and absolutely nothing else—this holiday season.
I'm not a really old Santa—I'm 47. So, I’m not extremely worried about COVID, but I would hate to pass it to anyone else. That's one of the reasons that a lot of the other Santas are passing this year: They fear being a spreader, which I do as well. I've been keeping an eye on numbers and stuff. Obviously, I've let everybody know that, “Hey, if I do happen to get COVID, I have to cancel your event.” I’m not just going to knowingly go out and pass it around. Everybody's still full steam ahead at this point. I’m still getting messages from people saying, “Hey, do you have any availability left?”
I’m also the Santa for downtown Indiana, Pennsylvania, a town of around 15,000 people about 70 miles east of Pittsburgh. I do that every Saturday and Sunday from the end of November, through Christmas in December. It’s always been an outdoor event, but this year, we’ve had to make some changes because of COVID-19.
Today was my first day as downtown Indiana’s Santa this year and it was extremely busy—I think because it was such a beautiful day outside, somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 degrees, sun shining. I was there today from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., and because it’s Black Friday weekend, people were out and about. For the display, we have a little Santa’s house with a porch. I'm sitting in front of that in my big chair. And then in front of me, we have a big plexiglass sheet with Christmas lights around it, and then artificial snow around the outside of the window to kind of give it a Christmassy look. I called that my “magic window.”
The kids come up to that, and I sit on one side of it and they stand on the other side of it on the platform and take off their masks so their parents can snap a picture—it’s a free event, so there’s no photographer. There was, by design, no physical contact; the distancing and the plexiglass shield kept us separated. People seemed very appreciative of that.
It was a pretty steady stream of families all day. There was never a long line or anything, but people would see me, come up, and then wait their turn to talk to me, with 10 or 15 minutes of waiting at most. I base my estimate of the number of kids I meet on the number of cookies we give away; every kid who talks to Santa gets a free Insomnia Cookie. Today, we probably went through 250 cookies, so that’s 250 kids.
I don't really see much difference with the kids at this point. I mean, they all love seeing Santa. I think kids like the normalcy of it. I got lots of requests today, just like every year; one boy wanted a lawnmower, another one wanted a tractor. I got a few asks for four-wheelers and dirt bikes, Paw Patrol toys, stuffed animals, and of course the PS4.
When I ask the kids what they want for Christmas, I get asked for live animals pretty regularly, but I always use the excuse that I can't carry live animals on the sleigh. I tell kids, “I fly very high, which is why I have this big warm coat on and it's too cold for the animals! I did try it one year and they got out of the bag and they made a mess over all the other presents,” stuff like that— not saying they can't get animals, but it has to be arranged through Mom and Dad. I also say I can’t do cell phones, either because, you know if I do a cell phone Of course Mom and Dad have to pay the bill and I can't do that to them, so that has to go through Mom and Dad too.
One of the really special things today was that last year, there was a seventeen-month-old who I actually visited in the hospital. Him and I, our picture was in the paper, the local Indiana Gazette. And I didn't realize that at the time, his mom messaged me later, but he actually came up and got his picture taken again with Santa this year. That was really cool, that I saw him when he was in the hospital, and now he’s doing great, he's out and about, and he still loves to come and see Santa.
Today, I was actually probably about a half hour early, because when I got there my chair and the Santa house hadn’t arrived yet. There were two families that I saw before we were even really open, but as Santa, I will stop and talk to any child at any point in time. It doesn’t really matter to me—so we talked and I still took pictures with them.
We went through four or five dozen cookies today, so that’s 60 kids; much less busy. I also only do 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays, so that’s two less hours, too. Still a decent flow, but nowhere near what it was yesterday. When I’m not talking to kids, I'll stand at the corner on my platform, sometimes just waving at the cars going by. Sometimes I talk to other people who might be mingling around, but I’ve been keeping my distance because I'm not wearing a mask, so I don't get up close to anybody or anything.
Yesterday, it was a little hard to figure out how to clean the plexiglass—especially with the fake snow being sprayed around. But today we got some better cleaners and straightened that out, so the pictures looked better. In my opinion, the pictures do look really cool! I think a lot of people were very apprehensive that it wasn’t going to be a very good Santa picture, but it’s almost like Santa is looking through a window at you, with lights and the snow. It looks very festive.
I had one little girl today, maybe four or five years old, who performed “Jingle Bells” for me on a tambourine that she brought from home, so that was very cute. I clapped and applauded. For some of the kids, the distance has actually been beneficial. If they’re shy or afraid of Santa, going over and sitting on Santa's lap is huge, whereas this is just going over to stand near Santa and there’s a barrier there, so it's not quite as intimidating.
I know it's not exactly normal, and even the kids were aware that this isn't really a normal year. A lot of people didn't think Santa would make an appearance this year, because of everything that's going on with COVID—the annual downtown Indiana Christmas parade was canceled. They’re going to try to do something virtually, but they’re still working on the details of that. The annual Christmas tree lighting was canceled, too. So we weren’t sure he was going to be there, but we made it work.
It’s just as much for the adults as it is for the kids. Mom and Dad see their kids with Santa Claus, and it brings back memories of their own Santa Claus. One of the interesting things, and this is a side note, is that Alzheimer’s patients know Santa; they may not know their loved ones remember their loved ones, but they know Santa because Santa has always been a part of their life.
Last year, when I was doing visits at the hospital, I held a one-day-old baby. Obviously, at one day old, she's not going to remember me, but she's going to be shown that picture. From the day she was born, Santa Claus has been there. It's more than just me, it's more than one person. It's, you know, millions of us that do it, put it on and continue the tradition and keep it alive.
There's a saying that goes around the Santa community. It's very good: “He errs who thinks Santa comes through the chimney, because Santa comes through the heart.” When you think about that, that is very true. Obviously, I'm just a guy in a suit. I'm not Santa Claus, I have no magic powers. But that belief, and that goodness, and being nice—that’s just a tremendous power.
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