Sad Santa

I’m still greeting kids this year, saying “ho ho ho” from behind an acrylic sheet.

Man wearing a Santa Claus costume and surgical mask stands in a storeroom full of cardboard boxes with red bows on them. He is putting one such box in a large red sack. There's a Christmas tree in the background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by insta_photos/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Stephen Arnold, who works as a Santa Claus in Shelby County, Tennessee. He is also the president of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas. The conversation has been transcribed, condensed, and edited for clarity by Aaron Mak.

The world’s got anxiety. None of us is feeling great about being locked down and having to distance ourselves, unable to be close to people who we know and love. It’s even more so for Santas, in that part of the joy that we get out of playing Santa Claus is that feeling of being close to people and bringing the spirit of Christmas to every one of them. Their eyes light up, their faces shine. It’s magical. It’s truly magical. And then when you take some of that away, it just creates a different relationship.

I do Santa all year long. I did not have anything for Christmas in July, as I usually do. We couldn’t get together in July. We’re at high risk. Santas check all the boxes, between diabetes, heart conditions, COPD, old age, and obesity. We’ve lost three Santas that I can put my finger on so far, and I’m sure there’s probably more. About 25 percent of Santas are doing everything they normally do, about 25 percent are trying to do their normal schedule but making sure there are some kinds of protections, about 25 percent are not performing at all, and then about 25 percent of them will be doing nothing but virtual visits.

Stephen Arnold smiles as Santa Claus, wearing a green vest with a reindeer pattern over a white shirt with a snowflake pattern. He sits in Santa's workshop with toymaking tools hanging in the background.
Courtesy of Stephen Arnold

If Santas are in public, they’re separated with a face shield and a 6-by-6 acrylic sheet, and the children are on the other side of it. In the first week, it became apparent that they were going to have to do something just to be able to communicate. One of the many health issues that Santas tend to have, similar to other old people, is that we start to lose our hearing. It’s hard enough to hear people when they’re right there on your knee. When they’re not on your knee and they’re trying to talk to you through acrylic devices, it gets even harder. Stores started to use walkie-talkies.

I’ve got a couple gigs where I’m being told that I just can’t expose all of the people who will be there to something I might have, and I can’t afford to get anything myself. I’ll be up on a firetruck talking to the children and never leave the firetruck. I’ll go to the botanic garden six times this year. They’re building a giant sleigh replica that’s mostly a plywood silhouette. I’ll appear to be sitting in the sleigh, and my head will be 8 or 9 feet above. The children will be down in front of it taking photographs with Santa, and we’ll be shouting back and forth. I’m also going to light the St. Jude Christmas trees for the sixth year in a row, but I will be in a snow globe. This year the kids will be on the outside of a snow globe. They’ll still get a pretty good picture and they’ll still have a conversation with Santa, but it certainly won’t be the same. I wear a mask everywhere I go, but I don’t like wearing a mask when I perform. We have deaf children who lip-read. I also have a very stylized beard. I like looking like a clean, prepared Santa. I get a big crease right across the middle of my beard, just above my chin where the mask tends to fall. I would prefer, if I can, to [just] wear a shield.

I’ve been a professional Santa for nine years now, and there’s always been virtual experiences from my very first year. At that time, we were using Skype. Now it’s mostly Zoom. There were two or three companies that were trying to piece together things, and this year there’s five new ones, a total of at least 10 that I know of trying to do it. For children, this is a unique opportunity to share a lot more information about you personally than you normally would in a mall situation. You have, normally, in a mall situation, maybe a minute, if that much, to tell Santa your deepest feelings and what you want for Christmas before he says, “Turn and smile at the camera.” With the video, you can talk about school. You can talk about your family. You can talk about what you got last year that you really like. You can ask Santa more details about the North Pole and the reindeer and the elves and Mrs. Claus. It’s a whole new aspect of portraying a character like Santa.

We have children, a few of the older ones in particular, who ask, “When am I going to be able to come back to school?” I say, “Well, that’s not up to Santa. That’s up to your local health experts and your parents. We want you to be able to go back to school too. But I don’t want you to worry about Christmas. Christmas is going to come, and I’m going to be able to make it to your home. The elves are working very hard to stay safe so that they don’t get off track. They’ll be making the toys that I’ll bring on Christmas.”