'Our Santa Jaw Dropped.' How SoCal Santas Are Going Virtual And Staying Safe For IRL Visits
Christmas will be different this year — please don't carol and spread your particles too close to me, please — and it will be no less different for Santa than for the rest of us.
There was a plan earlier this year to ensure that the actors who play jolly old St. Nick could have an in-person but COVID-safe Christmas, but it didn't end up going forward.
Orange County's "Santa" Ric Erwin leads the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas. He petitioned the federal government starting in August to give Santa Claus performers early access to the vaccine, tied in with a $250 million public-service ad campaign from the federal government.
It was a plan that had worked before, according to Erwin — they'd previously petitioned for early access to a pandemic with the H1N1 vaccine in 2009. But this time the Santas ran right into the Grinch of politics.
"In September, the entire thing fell apart when the deputy secretary for Health and Human Services [Michael Caputo], with whom we were [speaking], decided to take a mental health leave," Erwin told LAist. "And nobody else in the administration was willing to take up the project that he was working on [in] Operation Warp Speed."
The pandemic hit close to home for Erwin — his own father-in-law passed away during the pandemic, and the family was unable to visit him because of COVID-19 protocols. Following that, Erwin canceled his entire Santa performing season in order to make sure his family was safe from the virus.
"Looking around the world at that time, we were seeing other countries defeat the virus and come out the other end, so we had reasonable expectations that we would be able to return to something resembling normal before the Christmas season began," Erwin said. "We began to spiral into anxiety and frustration as we saw the response in this country devolve even further."
FIGURING OUT HOW TO DO CHRISTMAS IN 2020
About a third of all professional Santas have opted out of in-person events this year, Erwin said, according to a survey conducted by his group.
"When it became a harsh reality that we would not be able to save a traditional Christmas, we pivoted immediately, and some of our best and brightest minds started coming up with some alternatives to the in-person visit to make them slightly safer," Erwin said.
Many malls and shopping centers have canceled their usual in-person Santa sets, with some of them explaining it away by putting up decorations with a crashed sleigh, according to Erwin. Others are keeping live performers, but separating Santa from guests with plastic shields. Some are even using green-screen sets to digitally merge Santa in with those who want their photos with Santa.
But half of all the Santas are doing virtual visits this year. There have been some virtual visitations in the past, but the experience has taken off this year, keeping Santas extra busy in their home workshops. Erwin said that he's making less per hour, but has his time largely booked for the season. "Santa" Ed Taylor (whom we profiled last year) told LAist that he usually does 80 to more than 100 personal appearances per year — this year, he's booked more than 400 virtual visits.
"I'm thrilled, but it is a lot of work," Taylor said — he usually splits his time between Oregon and doing Santa appearance in Los Angeles. "But there is not driving through L.A. traffic. You're squeezing a lot more into the day, but you're doing it in a much more comfortable way."
What does a virtual visit entail?
"We get a little help from mom and dad helper elves that can give us a little information about the children — what they're doing, and their recent accomplishments, so Santa has a little more to talk with them about," Taylor said.
Part of the reason he started preparing for doing this Christmas season remotely: he didn't feel comfortable having Santas skip ahead in the vaccine line.
"Personally, I would step back from that," Taylor said. "I think there are a lot more people that need it. And this works."
HOW 2020 CHANGED VIRTUAL SANTA VISITS
Taylor, who runs the Worldwide Santa Claus Network, started doing virtual visits all the way back in 2007. Back then, it was a simple Skype call. But this year's virtual visit has leveled up, largely thanks to a Santa summit held on Zoom back in the spring.
"So we have a couple hundred Santas on, all looking at each other in these little windows, and one of the guys had this incredible background," Taylor said. "He had a fireplace going, and snow falling out the windows — we were like, 'what is that?!'"
That Santa explained that he was using a green screen, and a number of other Santas decided to follow suit.
"I think, collectively, our Santa jaw dropped," Taylor said.
Taylor said that he and many other Santas have now upgraded to gaming computers, upped their Internet speeds, and bought lights, cameras, and green screens. His own Zoom background used in virtual visits comes complete with aurora borealis and falling snow in the background, with his visits ranging from 12 to 25 minutes.
Those visits are a lot longer than a typical mall Santa interaction with a child, so it's taken some training for Santas to develop extended conversation options. Taylor likes to include a little Santa wisdom to help lift spirits, encouraging kids to be considerate and thoughtful, living with the Christmas spirit to help others.
One pro of the virtual visit: allowing family members across the country to visit Santa together. Another is being able to more tightly customize the experience, according to Taylor, with options like choosing Santas that speak different languages or finding a Black Santa.
Erwin is part of "Santa: The Experience," which features an elaborate virtual visit to the North Pole — it combines a video tour with that classic Santa visit. The company behind it normally produces concerts, but with their arenas shut down, they've set up virtual sets to create their own North Pole. Erwin and Taylor both expect this kind of value-added virtual visit to last into future Christmases.
"The traditional Santa photo will become the traditional Santa video," Erwin said.
Taylor said that's changed things for the performers too, knowing that families aren't just trying to capture a moment, but the whole experience.
"You want Santa to continue to be up, and look positive," Taylor said, "and for the child to be the star. It's great that Santa's there, but what did Johnny want when he was 4 years old?"
WHEN SANTA CAN'T FIGURE OUT ZOOM
Of course, not all Santas have made the jump to virtual visitations. Some of the Santas not holding traditional Christmas events will suffer a complete financial loss, Erwin said.
"The Santas who are less techno-savvy are at an extreme disadvantage this year," Erwin said.
"It's old dogs, new tricks," Taylor said. "But a lot of Santas are on fixed incomes, and this is something where they can pick up extra money towards the end of the year — it's helpful in their family visit, and it's undoubtedly hurting a fair number of these guys. As well as just psychically not being able to do what they love doing."
Some others have been willing to try, but find that it's either more expensive to upgrade their equipment than they thought it would be, or they live in a rural area where they just can't get fast enough Internet speeds to make virtual visits possible, according to Taylor. And others just haven't been able to figure it out.
"Most of them aren't doing it for the money," Taylor said. "They look at it and say, 'I love doing what I do — I don't love all this high-tech stuff. I can sit on the sidelines and hope for a better year next year.'"
AN ELEGANT IN-PERSON SANTA SOLUTION
Santa Ric has a personal favorite solution beyond the virtual visits, for those doing in-person gatherings: the Snow Globe Santa. Author Kathryn Burgess wrote a children's book explaining that Santa's been trapped in one of his elves' snow globes, and the story has been used around the world, with Santa visitations behind giant snow globes. Erwin said he loves this solution, because it incorporates a simple story for the children.
"All the other explanations have to include some kind of phrase like 'social distancing,' or 'public health authorities,' or 'viral spread,'" Erwin said.
While Erwin described 2020 as the worst year in living memory, he still has some hope.
"If there is going to be any hope whatsoever for ending the worst year ever on the best note possible, that hope is Christmas," Erwin said.
Book your visits with Santa now, before you have to get lined up for next year. Whether that will be virtual or in person, only Santa knows.