Santa Claus Is Coming To Town ... In Plastic Bubbles And Socially Distant Sleighs With the usual holiday season upended, there has been an "ever-heightening anxiety level in the Christmas community."
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NPR logo Santa Claus Is Coming To Town ... In Plastic Bubbles And Socially Distant Sleighs

Santa Claus Is Coming To Town ... In Plastic Bubbles And Socially Distant Sleighs

For many Santas like Tom Carroll, the setup looks different this year. Courtesy of/Tom Carroll hide caption

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Courtesy of/Tom Carroll

There are two types of Santas, according to Tom Carroll, a professional Santa Claus. The first, which he calls "big magic Santas," can entertain a theater packed with people, while the second, "close-up magic Santas," specialize in dealing with two or three children at a time.

Carroll falls into the latter category. "I don't like to stand up in front of a room full of 1,000 people and tell a story," says the 60 year old, who has been working as Santa Claus for more than 20 years. "I'd much rather sit with a kid or 25 kids and tell a story. Like they say, you make your own North Pole."

But not even the North Pole was spared by the coronavirus pandemic. This year, Carroll is one of many working Santas in the D.C. area adapting to a new normal, as venues and shopping malls implement new safety measures.

Carroll, who is also a computer systems manager at Bank of America, first donned the red suit professionally after taking his daughter to see Santa at a mall where the St. Nick on duty told him he had "the look." In the six weeks leading up to Christmas, he and his wife, who also works as Mrs. Claus, do between 50 and 70 paid and volunteer events across the D.C. region and beyond.

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This year, though, Carroll says they're doing "probably half what we normally do." The couple normally work a mix of private parties, corporate events, mall gigs, and more, including a tree lighting at Village at Leesburg, which didn't take place this year.

Dulles Town Center is inviting kids to visit Santa from "a safe distance," and all parties are required to wear masks. Guests are strongly encouraged to make reservations, and photos will be staged to "minimize the visibility of that distance." The Mall at Prince George's has a similar setup, with Santa situated behind a clear protective shield, and a bench in front where visitors can sit. The mall is also offering one-on-one Zoom calls with Santa, and participants can keep a recording of the conversation. Some retailers famous for their Santa displays, like Macy's in New York, have canceled his in-person appearances altogether.

Dan Green, a 63-year-old Carroll County resident who works as a licensed sales producer at Allstate when he's not appearing as Kris Kringle, is still doing some Santa gigs. His roughly 20 events include an appearance at an elementary school where he will sit outside in a the back of a sleigh, while kids sit in the front seat.

This year, in addition to growing out his beard, which he shaves off at midnight every Christmas Eve, he has had to prepare in other ways, like getting tested for COVID-19, and relaying that information to organizers. Still, the risk of exposure hasn't concerned Green too much.

"Right now, as long as I'm still negative and the place is still clean and not having any problems, then I would be going there," he says.

Carroll, meanwhile, is currently working at Spotsylvania Towne Centre in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where he's seated behind a sheet of plexiglass. He says the barrier "takes half the fun out of it."

"It's hard to hear the kids, it's hard for them to hear you," he says. "If you get a high-five it's up against a sheet of plexiglass with a hand on the other side of the plexiglass." (He's forgone virtual events as he lives in "the middle of nowhere" in Virginia, and his internet service can't support decent picture and audio).

Others have chosen to take a step back. John Fariss, a 68-year-old retired pastor, has been working as Santa for around eight years, but his "Mrs. Claus," his wife Nancy, has an autoimmune disease. He decided to limit his bookings this holiday season out of concern for her health.

The Waldorf, Maryland, resident is scheduled for about four of five events, and says "they are all events where the contact can be controlled."

Those include an appearance at car dealership Koons of Tysons Corner, where he'll be greeting children from inside a large plastic snow globe via an intercom system, and another at a nursing home he's been visiting for years, which will be outside ("I hope I don't freeze to death," he jokes.)

Ric Erwin, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas, which has about 600 Santas on its roster nationally, says as the pandemic continued to worsen over the summer, and that the holiday season as we know it would look different, "there was an ever-increasing, ever-heightening anxiety level in the Christmas community."

Erwin notes that the majority of FORBS members are at high risk for complications from COVID-19, due to their older age and a "preponderance of underlying medical conditions," like obesity and diabetes, though he didn't have exact numbers available.

But he says virtual gigs have provided safe alternatives for many members, and helped those with canceled gigs or who have opted to decline in-person opportunities a way to make up for lost income.

While some Santas offer their services strictly on a volunteer basis, many are paid. Tim Connaghan, founder of booking agency Real Santas, tells WAMU/DCist via email that hourly corporate and private event rates can range from $100 to $250 "depending on the area of the country, and the quality of the Santa," dropping to 75% of that for the second hour. Mall Santas, meanwhile, make between $15 and $50 an hour.

Plus, becoming Santa isn't cheap. Suits can range from store-bought versions priced starting at around $300, per Carroll, to custom costumes from purveyors like Adele's of Hollywood, which can cost upwards of $1,000 (some mall Santas, however, are provided with suits).

That's before the cost of other items like boots – which are often bought separately – Santa bags, or the cost of repairing suits, among other expenses. Carroll has six suits in different styles, from a more traditional look with fur down the front and sides, and along the cuffs and boot toppers, to a European-style suit, with a longer coat and slightly different hat. His wife has three or four Mrs. Claus outfits.

"It depends on what the client wants to see," he says.

Fariss, who usually charges about $100 an hour, says he appreciates the extra cash "as pastoral retirement leaves something to be desired." He had planned to put the money he made this year toward buying a handicap-accessible van for his wife, who can no longer get in and out of a sedan, but says it won't happen now.

He clarifies, though, that's it not about the income, and he sees the role as a kind of calling.

"I love it," he says. "I enjoy the kids. I enjoy sharing with them, and sometimes they'll break your heart. There are kids that, when I ask what they want for Christmas, they'll tell me things like, 'I want my family to be together again,' 'I want my father to get out of jail.'"

Fariss adds, "The ones with the heartache like that, they have to be handled differently."

He has mixed feelings going into this Christmas season. "Certainly I hope that it will turn out well, and I think probably it will," he says. "There's a degree of apprehension, though."

Carroll says it's all worth it for kids to be able to see Santa. He notes that people who used to come see him as kids are now bringing their children.

"We're all a little more cautious [this year]," he says. "We can't make the same kind of contact that we normally do, but I think it's an important part of tradition."

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