The coronavirus pandemic has changed everything about the way we live our lives, and as the year draws to a close, our holiday traditions will, unfortunately, be no exception. Many of us are cancelling or altering the plans that usually bring us comfort and joy in favor of safer, more socially distant options, including the beloved ritual of getting pictures with Santa. Companies are having to decide how to move forward and, generally, it looks like that's going to mean either cancelling Kris Kringle or having an experience that looks very different from that we're used to... and that's a good thing.
I'm not saying this lightly. No one loves those annual photos more than I do. My own children absolutely refuse to go near Santa and, as such, I have to live through other people's experiences. The only thing better than a picture of a kid happily perched on Santa's lap is a picture of a screaming child trying to escape. (Sorry, not sorry — their desperation is hilarious.) My holiday season is made immeasurably better with the inclusion of these delightful images flooding my mailbox and social media feed during the month of December. But, at the risk of being obvious: it's a pandemic, people, and we have to protect not only our children but the people who work every other year to make their Christmas a little more magical. Because, I don't mean to shock you, but mall Santas? *looks over both shoulder for children* They aren't immortal elves like the real Santa, so we need to look out for them. Seriously guys: imagine living with the fact that you gave Santa COVID. It's a Grinchy move.
There is no universal consensus among retailers about what's to be done. (If we're being honest, that's pretty on-brand for pretty much any U.S. response to the pandemic.) While some stores (notably Macy's) have moved to virtual visits and experiences, other companies have given an in-person St. Nick the green light. Others still have not yet made a decisions about what's the be done.
A representative for Brookfield Properties, which owns and operates shopping centers throughout the U.S., acknowledged that planning for this holiday season was a bit of a balancing act. "We wanted to do all that we could to preserve the magic of this experience while still keeping our guests as safe as possible," they said in an emailed statement to Romper. Brookfield ultimately made the decision to have Santa appear at 134 of its shopping centers this year. Whimsical holiday sets will include the traditional sleighs, trees, and decorative packages, along with hand sanitizing stations and daily temperature checks for staff. Facial coverings will be required of staff and guests in states with mask mandates. "Our hope is that by continuing to offer the opportunity to carry out these traditions, we will not only help spread the joy of the holidays, but bring a sense of normalcy to the communities in which we operate."
It's a decision that not only affects the families who visit Santa, but "Santa" himself. Andrew Cunningham and his wife Lisa have been playing Santa and Mrs. Claus in malls in Michigan for the past four years. They own a pest control company, and since business tends to slow in the colder months, the costumed gig comes at the perfect time. Not only is it a convenient way to supplement their income, but they really enjoy spreading holiday cheer. In fact, 2020 was the year their daughter, Lydia, was going to join in the family tradition as an elf. But, unfortunately, it looks like it may not happen.
"We are employed by a private company who is contracted by the mall's owners every year, and right now we are on standby because of the pandemic," Cunningham tells Romper. "Our team is working hard to pitch to our city counsel and the management of the mall a solution where we can continue the tradition without taking any risks."
Losing the ability to be the Clauses this year isn't primarily a financial concern for the Cunninghams — it's something they genuinely enjoy that has become an important family tradition. They're holding out hope that it's one they'll be able to continue. Besides, Cunningham says, if we've ever needed holiday spirit, surely 2020 is the year. He's hopeful that he'll be able to don the red suit soon, even if that means including some PPE as well. "If Santa needs to wear a mask or a face shield to safely bring joy to the children, you can bet your stocking he will!"
But even in the absence of in-person Santa, there are ways to keep some part of the fun going this year. Recognizing both the dearth of store Santas and public hesitation to visit even those available, numerous outlets have stepped up with online offerings to make sure kids get their Claus fix this year. Companies like JingleRing offer virtual visits with Santa Claus. Or, for about the cost of pictures with Santa, It’s The Real Santa can send your kids a personalized message, complete with details about their interests, friends, and pets.
No matter what kind of Santa experience is possible this year — or which ones we choose to partake in while balancing the risk of community spread — it's going to be different... which makes it kind of like every other experience we've had since March. But if this pandemic has taught us anything, it's how to devise new ways to enjoy old traditions. Drive-by birthday parades. Halloween candy catapult. Zoom cocktail hours. Now virtual Santa, masked Santa, or Santa behind plexiglass will join the ranks of 2020 creative solutions. It won't be the same, but our traditions are resilient enough to make it through COVID — we just have to do the same. Santa spends all year watching our kids, and now it's up to us to watch out for him.