When you step back and look at him from the right angle, Santa Claus is some combination of action hero and reverse cat burglar. The guy is fearless. Who else could land a team of flying reindeer atop a house in a snowstorm, only to roll up his red sleeves, tell someone to “Hold my cocoa,” and then benevolently commit 500 million cases of breaking and entering in a single night?
But then COVID-19 happened… Now, welcoming kids onto his lap is about as safe as defusing a bomb. And that’s where the star of our show draws the line. He may have nerves of steel, but Santa’s not suicidal.
“A lot of Santas I know just aren’t going to do it this year,” says Fred Salinsky, chairman of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas. “Some of them, you know, they’ve got diabetes or health issues and don’t want to take the chance. I mean, I’m losing Santas all the time with strokes and heart attacks.”
Salinsky is referring to professional Santa Clauses, those jolly, red-suited grandpas found at malls or grand marshalling Christmas parades every December. However, their white beards, round waistlines, and all that close physical contact puts them in the crosshairs of the CDC’s riskiest COVID-19 categories. Of course, changes must be made.
“About 25% of Santas are doing everything they normally do, about 25% are trying to do their normal schedule but making sure there are some kinds of protections,” one Santa from Tennessee tells Slate, “About 25% are not performing at all, and then about 25% of them will be doing nothing but virtual visits.”
Once again, 2020 has thrown another industry into complete chaos… so much chaos that Gilbert Gottfried might just be their savior.
Everyone’s Favorite Chimney-Sliding Senior Citizen
According to Christmas historian Bruce David Forbes, America began sitting on the laps of red-suited strangers in the 19th century. His book, Christmas: A Candid History, says that after Clement Moore’s poem A Visit from St. Nicholas and Thomas Nast’s classic illustrations of Father Christmas for Harper’s, “Images of and references to Santa Claus appeared in children’s books, games, songs, dolls, newly introduced Christmas cards, and magazine and newspaper advertisements.” He adds, “Department-store Santas appeared with standard red and white costumes.”
So, that’s the genesis of everyone’s favorite chimney-sliding senior citizen… But how did he end up outside JC Penney, and what’s up with all the lap sitting?
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I call Santa Fred Salinsky the day before Thanksgiving, and it is immediately everything I’d hoped for: He’s laughing before he even says hello. Uncontrollably laughing. He doesn’t stop chuckling until the sound of the TV in the background goes silent. Santa Fred lives in Sun City, Arizona… and, unfortunately, he has time to chat because he had to cancel his usual gig as the main attraction at an elaborate North Pole workshop up in Flagstaff. “This year we aren’t doing it,” he says. “We had to close it down due to the virus.”
But not all Kris Kringles have the luxury of taking the season off. Many are retirees who supplement their income by logging long hours on the red velvet throne each December. Others use the money to take classes on craft (Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus University… several, actually.) and to invest in red suits that can run up to $5,000.
However, if you talk to enough Santas, you realize that they don’t do this job for the money. It’s the interaction with people that fuels them. For some in the reindeer-jockeying game, making an impact on a child’s life is too much to give up, so they are forging ahead despite the risks, rethinking the traditional Christmas visit with social distancing in mind.
“Some of the malls are putting Santas in plastic bubbles,” says Salinsky. “Some of them actually have shields that go up.”
He’s right. Check the website for your local shopping center or holiday festival – chances are that they opted to still do something in person rather than scrap the entire celebration. Some have erected Popemobile-quality plastic walls or are sticking Santa behind a cheerful cottage window. One town in Nebraska even hoisted Saint Nick up into a deer stand to greet children from a distance.
But, as expected, it’s awkward and a far cry from holidays past. “It certainly won’t be the same,” the Slate magazine Santa laments.
Fear not, plexiglass shields are not the limit of Santa’s holly jolly creativity. We’re talking about a man who went from hammering together wooden trains and stitching dollies in a sub-zero workshop to delivering 21st-century tech under Christmas trees. Santa is an innovator.
“This year, I’ll be behind a piece of plexi, talking to the children. And when it comes time to shoot the picture, they’ll be in front of me, and I’ll basically be photobombing them.”
“There are actually some organizations doing drive-ins,” says Santa Lance Skapura, whose home base is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Skapura is also no slouch in the jolliness department – his answering machine apologizes for not getting to your call because Santa is busy working on a flux capacitor to help him travel around the globe on Christmas night. “You bring your car, you bring your children, and you pull in like a drive-in movie. Santa does 20 minutes onstage in front of the car, and the sound is piped in via a small FM transmitter right into your car stereo.”
Skapura – “Chief Executive Kringle” for You Sleigh Me, a fraternal club of Pittsburgh-area Santas, who also moonlights as a theater director – came up with his own solution to these challenging times: personal visits and contracts. Santa Lance is spending most of his holiday season individually visiting clients’ houses, but not before they sign a tour rider jam-packed with every stipulation short of a bowl of brown M&Ms. The contract demands strict mask-wearing, social distancing, and otherwise safety addendums. It’s a far safer environment, but all the legalese in the world doesn’t deliver a family’s biggest holiday desire.
“We had to keep the children safe and still manage to get those family photos everyone wants,” says Santa Lance. “This year, I’ll be behind a piece of plexi, talking to the children. And when it comes time to shoot the picture, they’ll be in front of me, and I’ll basically be photobombing them.”
The Evolution of the Department-Store Santa
Sadly, I cannot track down photo evidence of the first department-store Santa, or whether or not he bombed the picture.
Macy’s claims to have invented the idea in 1861 and bestowed their marketing materials with slogans like “The Home of Santa” for years. (In 2020, the store has opted to close down its famed Santaland and is offering a virtual experience instead.) However, a 1991 Yankee article uncovered the North Pole-shattering story of “Colonel Jim” Edgar, a Massachusetts merchant who claims to have beaten Macy’s to the punch in bizarre fashion. It says Edgar was actually the first department-store Santa… almost 30 years after Macy’s, in 1890.
Confused? Me, too.
The article clarifies that “Colonel Jim” merely updated Macy’s more rustic look and was simply the first guy to dress in the iconic red suit and beard made famous in those Thomas Nast drawings. We’re splitting some serious reindeer hairs here, but that evolution of the department-store Santa is important to note.
One thing that hasn’t changed is how children react upon meeting him. As one man reminisced of his 1890 encounter with Edgar, “I remember walking down an aisle, and all of a sudden, right in front of me, I saw Santa Claus. I couldn’t believe my eyes. And then Santa came up and started talking to me. It was a dream come true.”
Father Christmas is still making dreams come true today, even if that dream involves being insulted by Iago from Aladdin. For $150, you can get a personalized Christmas video from Gilbert Gottfried wearing a hilariously ill-fitting Santa suit that looks like something a Salvation Army bell ringer threw in the trash. For about three minutes, Gottfried’s distinctive vocal-chords-against-a-cheese-grater voice will wish you a happy holiday or even roast you with classic Christmas lines like, “I could fit all my reindeer up your ass.”
“I could fit all my reindeer up your ass.”
– Gilbert “Santa” Gottfried
Regardless of your taste in scatological Rudolph humor, Gottfried (and Cameo, the platform which hosts him) might actually be on to something. Forget plexiglass shields and drive-in St. Nick concerts desperately trying to rekindle some lost Christmas normalcy – the silver lining of our COVID-19 Christmas is online. Keeping Santa further away might actually bring the big guy closer to our kids.
In addition to Gottfried, Cameo has a stable of traditional Santas, as well as a singing Santa, a Spanish-speaking Santa, and even a Muppet-looking puppet Santa. The problem, however, is that while each video is unique for customers, they are prerecorded and not interactive.
Times like these require innovation, and Santa has that box checkmarked. Luckily, we are living in a golden age of video chat. Believe it or not, that is actually something to be thankful for.
Yes, a virtual Santa visit helps you stay home and avoid the inevitable super-spreader event that is the local shopping mall. And yes, you are skipping that particular circle of hell known as waiting in line for hours only to have your kid melt down right as it’s their turn in front of the camera. But what really makes online Santas something to embrace is their level of personal attention.
Consider what Santa Lance tells me almost as an afterthought while he’s discussing the brief windows of time between his online sessions… “There’s five minutes off so I can get ready for the next visit with all the children’s information. I spend those minutes learning about them.”
That personal touch is the unmatched upside to digital Claus. Most virtual Santa sites (of which there are several, online and local) ask parents screener questions, almost like how talk shows draw out small talk material from a guest before the cameras roll. The result, ideally, is a far cry from the conveyor-belt system of Christmas past. Instead of maybe one hurried minute on his lap, kids get anywhere from five minutes to an hour of one-on-one time with the big guy. And if things go right, there’s a chance for kids to feel like Santa really does know them, and a chance for the magic of this whole legend to make a deeper connection than before… a chance for memories to be made even sharper.
Parents are likely skeptical, but kids seem to be digging the online experience. As one 10-year-old in Columbus, Ohio put it when she learned her family would be meeting Santa online, “Well, at least I don’t have to sit on a lap this year!”
Sitting on a Stranger’s Lap
Why the lap? Of all the traditions associated with Christmas, it’s sitting on a stranger’s lap that has aged the worst.
Santa Lance has a hunch where this comes from, and the answer is… weird. Not Gilbert Gottfried weird, but the Pennsylvania Dutch finish a close second.
“They have a character called Pelznickel, who was dressed all in fur,” says Santa Lance. “Pelznickel was normally played by one of the elders in the community. He was not the nice, friendly Santa who hands out presents. He was more like a Dutch uncle. He would give candy and sweets to those children who were good, and those children who were not doing what they were supposed to got threatened with a whip.”
Whoa. Kind of makes a lump of coal sound like a sweet deal.
In Christmases of yesteryear, there were no masks or social distancing and lots of questionable lap sitting…
“Pelznickel would come to town, come to people’s homes. Some children would sit on his lap, and that’s really where that tradition is derived from.”
Cue my eureka moment. Cue me running through the streets in black and white, shouting, “Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!” A weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I finally have all the answers!
Except one: “Wait, what about the name”? I ask. “What does Pelznickel even mean?”
“Fuzzy Nicholas,” Santa Lance tells me, but then pauses a moment. “Actually, a better translation is ‘Fuzzy Layabout’ or ‘Fuzzy Bum.’”
In 2020, Make Lemontinis
Who cares whether Macy’s or “Colonel Jim” or some whip-cracking Mennonite invented the modern professional Santa Claus… What we do know is that today’s Kris Kringle is far different than the man in that first poem. Santa Claus has evolved, and we’re watching that change in real-time. So, now might be a good time to stop grumbling about the way we visited Santa in our childhood and instead, embrace what makes Santa 2.0 really unique.
COVID-19 cannot stop him. Santa is an innovator and, apparently, an optimist.
COVID-19 cannot stop him. Santa is an innovator and, apparently, an optimist.
“A wise man once said, when life gives you lemons,” says Santa Lance when asked about the hassle of retooling for COVID, “make lemontinis.”
I interrupt our shared laughter, “Wait, did you come up with that or did someone else?”
“I said he was a wise man, didn’t I?”
Patrick Wensink is the bestselling author of several books, including his last novel Fake Fruit Factory, which was named a best book of the year by NPR. In addition, his nonfiction appears in the New York Times, Esquire, Oxford American and others. He lives in Louisville, KY with his wife, son, and fragile ego. Photos: AP.