Christmas is the “most wonderful time of the year.” At least it is in one song about the season. And that wonder has to do, in part, with annual traditions. As the holiday fast approaches, a popular pastime is facing roadblocks: visits with professional Santas.
Visiting Santas at malls and other public spaces usually entails crowds or long lines. In the modern time of social distancing, professional Santas went online or had to get creative last year.
One Oregonian Santa — Rev. Dr. Leroy Barber, also known as Black Santa PDX — made in-person visits possible by sitting in a snow globe set up last year, allowing separation from visiting children.
In year two of the COVID-19 pandemic, the holiday landscape looks a little different. More people are seeking out in-person Santa visits as vaccine doses are now approved for kids as young as 5.
Demand for Santas is through the roof. Similar to supply chain shortages and product backlogs across the globe due to the pandemic, there have been ripple effects in the economy involving those who seasonally dress up as St. Nick. In some cases, the demand outstrips what these friendly, bearded individuals came to expect in pre-pandemic years.
Barber told “Think Out Loud” that he’s doing at least twice as many events this year as he did in 2019. While part of the demand has to do with the world opening back up, Barber is specifically sought out by many families for another reason, too.
“I think people wanna see a Black Santa, a Santa of color. And I think that’s just a growing thing in our area… probably about 70% of the kids that come to us are kids of color, biracial kids… [parents in] the LGTBIA community come who have adopted children who are of color,” Barber said.
He told OPB that being a Santa is as much fun for him as it is for kids.
“I feel like I get the opportunity to see a part of society that is hopeful and wants a little bit of joy and wants to celebrate.”
A national strain on Christmas spirit
Susen Mesco has also seen explosive demand for in-person Santas. She’s the founder and director of the Professional Santa Claus School and president of American Events & Promotions at Santa Visits USA.
She said she started getting calls for Santas early in 2021. “I think we all held our breath until about March, and then the booking started flooding in.”
With the vaccine rollout, Mesco said, people were likely thinking Christmas 2021 would be back to normal — “‘COVID is gonna go away. We’re all gonna be cured. We can take off our masks and have fun. I miss my family, I wanna hug them. I wanna be with them again.’ You know, people are just breaking out. They just really need that human connection… Santa Claus has always been kind of the centerpiece.”
Vaccines are increasing the demand for Santas, but before they were available, the pandemic prompted many to hang up their red suits in 2020, according to Mesco. The reason for the retirements: Santas, who tend to be older and overweight, were more at risk of contracting the coronavirus.
“COVID did take a toll on our Santas because they’re in that spectrum of [being] very susceptible,” Mesco told OPB. “So we had Santas who in 2020 said, ‘You know, I was thinking of retiring in a couple years. I’m just gonna turn in the suit.’ I had about 13 guys that have worked for me, come by and hand me their suits and say, ‘give it a good home.’”
Mesco also said that, unfortunately, COVID-19 claimed the lives of dozens of Santas last year.
Of the 500 to 600 Santas who routinely worked with Mesco in 2020, she told OPB that 74 have died of the disease.
“It’s heartbreaking. It really is. And they were just dear, dear, they didn’t just work for me. These guys had been through my school. They were dear friends for 15, 20 years,” Mesco said.
Another COVID Christmas
With all these contributing factors from 2020, demand for Santas is high. But one Oregon toy store that managed to book a Santa decided to cancel its event.
Barb Wright, who owns Oodles Toy Store in Portland, experienced first-hand how hard it was to book a professional Santa and arrange in-person visits.
After finding a Santa, Wright told OPB, the store managed online bookings to schedule time slots to avoid crowds.
“We were in the midst of working out all the details, such as, sitting on a stool in front of Santa, so we’re not, on Santa’s lap, that sort of thing… As we were working on our COVID protocol, more questions were coming,” Wright said.
“We were getting everyone booked up for their time slots, [and] I wanted to be able to advertise that Santa was vaccinated, and I found out that in fact, he wasn’t.”
Wright decided to cancel the event, despite the hoops already jumped through. She said the event wasn’t “worth the risk.”
Wright said she was glad customers were on board with the cancellation and she received only positive feedback for the choice.
While this Christmas is closer to normal than last year, the coronavirus is still present and spreading, leading to creative thinking and safety measures, including around how people see Santa Claus.
Even if there aren’t many Santa photoshoots this year, the big man is known to be very elusive at the North Pole. And he knows that 2021 is a year that could especially use plenty of Christmas cheer, so his work is as important as ever.