The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted just about everything this year, including holiday traditions like visits with Santa Claus. But even amid this year’s challenges, the professionals who play St. Nick have managed to get creative by adapting their visits online or at a distance.
Jeff Reuter and the Rev. Dr. Leroy Barber joined “Think Out Loud’' to talk through how they’re spreading some Christmas cheer despite COVID-19.
For Reuter, known professionally as Pro Santa Jeff, Santa Claus is a family affair; his grandfather, father and brother all donned the classic red-and-white suit before him. Reluctant at first, it wasn’t until three years ago that he became Santa Claus for the very first time.
“When I walked in [for my first event], it was like Elvis or the Beatles or something — the kids came rushing at me, and there were a few kids that were just sobbing because they love Santa so much,” Reuter said. “Honestly, I did feel myself change. There is something about the suit that changes you.”
In a normal year, Reuter suits up as Santa at events for McMenamins restaurants and Multnomah Village. But in 2020, Reuter and his husband have gone fully virtual, turning their barn into a makeshift Santa’s Workshop, where children can call in to video chat with Santa Claus. Keeping Christmas in the family, their son plays an elf named “Techie,” who helps Santa during video calls.
“Most kids still need to have Santa Claus — parents need to have some way to help keep that innocence,” Reuter said. “So we were really determined to figure it out and knew that this platform was one of the best ways for us to do it.”
As Santa, Reuter also specializes in visiting neurodiverse children. Reuter said parents of neurodiverse children appreciate giving their kids a little magic while still maintaining a more controlled environment from the comfort of home.
“There’s a lot of sensory overload when you’re in a mall or a setting with other kids and lights and sounds,” Reuter said. “I think we’re going to see more of this in the future. ... I think it gives them a safer environment to really be themselves.”
For Barber, assuming the role of Santa comes with a sense of responsibility beyond gift-giving. As one of Portland’s few Black Santas, Barber continues to provide a version of St. Nick that is representative of the communities around him.
“We wanted kids and even adults to be able to see themselves in Santa,” Barber said. “There’s something magical about it, the idea of a Black Santa for people, and the representation that comes from that.”
In previous years, Barber would don his Santa suit at the United Methodist Church, where he serves as the director of innovation for the region. While he could no longer visit with children and church members in person, Barber’s solution was to put himself into a literal bubble: COVID-19-safe visits with Santa through a 10-foot-tall, 10-foot-wide inflatable plastic snow globe.
Through Black Santa PDX, Barber and local organizers were able to facilitate distanced photos with children at pop-up events and drive-by parades.
“I don’t know who’s more excited, the parents or the children. There are parents that are just giddy,” Barber said. “Because of safety issues, people have really embraced it and the creativity of it.”
For Barber, the role of Santa Claus is just as fulfilling to him as it is to the community.
“I think people identify with seeing themselves in this image, this mythical character that’s bigger than life, that brings imagination, gifts, love and care,” Barber said.
“If you can see yourself in that person, it does something for people that’s quite incredible.”
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