Santas are trading lap chats for Zoom calls this season

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Dave Callender, a Keene-area Santa, has been preparing for the Season of COVID-19. Courtesy Photo

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Santa Claus is still coming to town this year, but you might not get the chance to sit on the old elf’s lap.

“We’re becoming experts on Zoom,” said Dan Greenleaf, a professional Santa who also works as a booking agent for other New England Santas.

“I’ve always been a problem solver, but this year is putting me to the test,” Greenleaf said.

Greenleaf, 69, has been a professional Santa for about 14 years and appears as Santa at the Manchester Christmas Parade, as well as the Dana-Farber Jimmy Fund  Clinic, the Bass Pro Shop in Hooksett, and at private events and even home parties. 

New England Santa Society 2018 gathering. Photo/NESS Facebook

Greenleaf started his business, ImSanta.org, to help other Santas and Mrs. Claus’s book events for the holiday season. Greenleaf helped wrangle Santa slots for store visits and he knew a lot of his Santa coworker schedules. 

“My schedule was getting full and people were still calling for Santas,” he said.

Greenleaf also helped organize the New England Santa Society and helped run its Santa academy. 

Long gone are the days when a professional Santa could make $100,000 or more in a season doing corporate booking, but many Santas still stay jolly enough with the money they do get.

Santa’s workshop: A Santa leads a Santa Camp workshop during 2019 New England Santa Society Camp. Photo/Marc Nozell

“It’s not something somebody can really make a living at because it’s such a short season. A few Santas have year-round gigs, but that’s rare,” Greenleaf said. “It’s a good source of revenue to supplement incomes for a lot of older guys who are retired.”

The problem is a lot of Santas, because of their age and other Santa-like qualities, which is especially problematic given the risks COVID presents to older and overweight people. 

“Most of us are not in the most physically fit conditions, it sort of comes with the job,” Greenleaf said.

Even in the best of winters, Santas get sick with colds and flu after coming into contact with so many members of the public, especially children. Many Santas decided to keep the reindeer in the barn or opt-out of the season this year rather than risk getting sick.

Callender decided to set up a studio in his home for video meetings with customers after his usual spring work as the Easter Bunny didn’t have him hopping. Courtesy Photo

When Dave Callender, a Keene area Santa, watched the news this spring he knew he would have to be prepared for a very different Christmas. 

“I am very nervous about this whole thing. I’m 66 and pre-diabetic,” he said.

Callender decided to set up a studio in his home for video meetings with customers after his usual spring work as the Easter Bunny didn’t have him hopping.

“It didn’t look good when that went south, I knew I gotta be prepared,” he said.

Callender is not doing in-person visits, and not showing up at parties this Christmas. He may do outdoor visits for a few families, and he might set up a pop-up office where he can do photos for some loyal customers using a socially distanced set up.

The Santa handbook from New England Santa Society Santa Camp 2020, and a goodie bag for all the good Santas. Photo/Marc Nozell

Whatever happens this Christmas, and whatever shape his Santa business takes, Callender knows he must do everything he can to avoid COVID-19.

“My 90-year-old in-laws live in my house. I have two granddaughters, we see them but they have masks now. I haven’t hugged them for six months,” he said.

For private freelance Santas like Greenleaf and Callender, bookings that are usually squared away in August and September, are down. Many corporate parties that make up a big part of the business have already been cancelled, Greenleaf said. 

“Lots of bookings are down, people don’t know what they are going to do,” Greenleaf said. “I usually have 60 to 70 percent of the season committed at this point.”

Greenleaf, like Callender, is switching to Zoom Santa visits for parties and events, and he finds a lot of clients are eager for the interactions. He’s also working to make sure photo sessions can take place with social distancing, like leading one family in at a time.

“We’re trying to accommodate as best we can,” he said. “We are learning to be virtual Santas as well.”

Marc Nozell masked up and ready for Santa Camp 2020.

Marc Nozell of Merrimack is what you’d call a newbie Santa. He’s also one of the younger Santas around, and applied his technical expertise as a former software engineer to the greater-Santa-good this summer, serving as a trainer during the annual New England Santa Society Santa Camp, held in August in Greenfield.

“I gave some presentations around the technology side of the business, like how to use Zoom, and the pros and cons. There’s been a lot of talk since April of how we’re going to do things this year, how to be safe – not only for ourselves, although we’re obviously concerned about Santa getting sick, nor do we want to be a vector to bring sickness to other families,” says Nozell. “Can you imagine the headline: ‘Santa brings COVID to Family of 6?’ In other years Santas always hope to make it through the season without getting sick, but with talking to so many kids, and hugs, and sticky hands and just the nature of being around kids, safety has to be our No. 1 concern.”

Being Santa is more than having the right look. Santa Camp helps by making sure Santa has answers to important questions. Photo/Marc Nozell

Santa Camp 2020 was a much smaller crowd than 2019, says Nozell. Masks were worn and social distancing was followed.

But the move to virtual Santas is inevitable, he says. 

“There’s a number of companies that are creating new ways to have virtual time with Santa, and that’s what a bunch of folks are going to do. A lot of it comes down to what each individual Santa feels comfortable with,” he says.

Nozell was always a jovial guy and, as a father of six, he dressed up in a cheap Santa suit for his own kids 20 years ago. But it wasn’t until he grew out his beard in 2018 and wore a red winter coat while out and about in Nashua to the delight of everyone that he considered becoming a Santa. He invested in a legit Santa suit and got involved with New England Santa Society, attending his first Santa Camp in 2019. By the first week of December he had a paying gig under his big black belt – and then landed in the hospital with a heart attack. Now, the pandemic has made his comeback that much more challenging.

Marc Nozell of Merrimack is ready to be the best Santa he can be after last year’s heart attack and this year’s pandemic. Courtesy Photo

But he has a green screen and he knows how to use it, and will likely go that route as he promotes his own Santa business, SantaMarkNH.com.

And that is a trend that may become more permanent.

Greenleaf says Santas are doing private visits for families over Zoom, with the Santas talking to the children over laptops instead of on laps. Greenleaf has one client, a school, where the media cart with a screen is wheeled from class to class so that all the students can see Santa. Private parties might mean Santa waves from outside while the guests stay inside, and photos sessions are getting creative too, Greenleaf said. The sets are getting designed so that Santa and the children can be together in a scenario, while everyone stays six-feet apart.

Patrick Hayward, a 65-year-old Croydon retiree who works as a mall Santa during the Christmas season is worried about his health. He’s got bad knees and hips from old injuries, and he’s on the Santa-side of the weight scale. He still signed up for a multi-week assignment to be Santa at malls in the New York and New Jersey area.

“I’m doing this, even though I’ve got a big risk of the COVID, I don’t want the kids to go without this year,” Hayward said. “I don’t want the kids to go without Santa Claus.”

Hayward is going to be away from his family for five weeks for the job. He’ll do daily health scans and temperature checks, and the company he works for is going to make sure social distancing and other precautions are followed.

Mark Nozell, foreground, and fellow Santas practic social distancing at Santa Camp 2020. Photo/Marc Nozell

Hayward has made more money in past years, like the year he made $1,100 in two days. But that’s not the point this year when so much has been cancelled for kids and the world has gotten a little darker for them.

“I wouldn’t be doing it for the cash. I have to give these kids some type of joy,” he said. “The money’s no good this year.”

Matt Windt, Chief Marketing Officer with New Jersey-based Cherry Hill Programs, said his company has 1,000 to 1,200 Santas in malls and shopping centers every Christmas. This year is no different, and Cherry Hill has not seen a drop in the number of real-bearded Santas looking for work. There is some fluctuation in the number of venues willing to host Santa, though.

“While some smaller centers are making the decision to cancel their Santa experience, the vast majority plan to host Santa,” Windt said.

Windt said the precautions Cherry Hill is using for the mall Santas include temperature checks for staff prior to starting their shifts; offering hand sanitizer throughout the set; social distancing practices including socially-distanced queues and physical barriers, as well as encouraging advanced reservations and contactless payments to reduce the contact between customers and staff.

Greenleaf echoed what many of the other Santas said, they want to make sure children have a Santa experience despite the pandemic.

“I don’t want families to go through without a Santa this year,” Greenleaf said. “I think we’ve got plenty of options. We can still give children and families that Santa experience this year.”

One venue that always has Santa, and the real Santa, according to manager Jim Miller, is Santa’s Village in Jefferson. This season will be no different, though visitors will be doing socially distanced visits with the big guy.

“Those socially-distanced visits with Santa have been just as popular and just as well-received as the traditional knee-top chats,” Miller said.

As more events are being called off there still might not be enough Santas to go around because so many are staying home this year, according to Greenleaf.

“Santas are in short supply and if you wait too long you’re not going to find any,” he said.

Dan Greenleaf shares the Santa love in this photo from a pre-COVID Christmas. Courtesy Photo

Carol Robidoux of ManchesterInkLink.com contributed to this story.


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