Santa Claus isn’t just memorizing children’s names and the lists of toys he plans to bring them this season. He’s also studiously brushing up on his computer skills.
“I’ve got ‘Zoom For Dummies,’” said Robert Jordan, aka Santa Bob, a retired truck driver and real-bearded Santa Claus who’s been playing the part for seven years. “It’s a new world for Santa Claus."
All of the trademark features we’ve grown accustomed to during pandemic life are spilling over into the holiday season, and not even jolly Saint Nick and his Christmas magic are exempt.
Face shields attached to red caps. Masks made specifically for people with bushy beards. Plexiglass dividers and social-distancing for children making mall visits. And yes, virtual calls straight from Santa’s busy “workshop” via Zoom. While the coronavirus can’t stop Christmas from coming, some traditions will understandably be as restrained as the reindeer guiding Santa’s sleigh.
“We can’t have Santa getting sick before Christmas,” said Jordan, who turned his Framingham den into “Santa’s office” and has a workshop in his shed, two perfect backgrounds for Zoom. But “we want children to be able to see Santa, and whatever Santa can do to make it work, Santa is going to do.”
For months now, Santa actors have been figuring out ways to adapt to a new holiday landscape.
“Santa Jim” Manning converted a space in his Cambridge home into a place to make Zoom calls with children, complete with a green screen background, studio-quality lighting, and sound equipment. He has been taking classes on how to make online meet-and-greets run smoothly.
Manning still plans to do some outdoor, socially distanced appearances with small groups, clad in a face shield and mask and without any lap-sitting or hugs. But most gigs will be from behind a screen, including “Zoom-bombing” corporate meetings as a holiday treat.
“Santa is still going to be able to come,” said Manning, who has played the role for 17 seasons.
While the experience will not be the same, there are benefits: Manning’s talents are no longer restricted to New England, aligning with the true spirit of Santa’s ability to visit many homes. He can also better connect with kids who might otherwise be wary about meeting Santa.
“If Santa is on a screen, the child who is much more shy in person now has a lot less pressure on him or her,” Manning said. “It’s definitely going to be weird, but also, that’s OK. It’s not going to be like this forever. The magic is in the season.”
For “Santa Claus Craig” (real name Craig McKenna), seeing children face-to-face will be the exception rather than the rule.
“Being 70 years old and diabetic ... I’m not in a good place should I catch COVID,” said McKenna, who lives in Newton. “I also do not want to become a COVID-spreader, even if I was asymptomatic. As a Santa, that’s something we are very concerned about."
McKenna would typically have a host of in-person events lined up already. But like others, he plans to turn to virtual visits using JingleRing.com, which connects him with clients.
“They manage all the bookings and I spend several hundred hours on my end talking to the kids over the Internet,” said McKenna, who is tentatively setting up an authentic-looking North Pole backdrop at his home. “It’s a very different skill set than what I have been used to. So I either have to develop that skill set or pass on the entire season."
Dan Greenleaf, a practicing Santa and cofounder of the New England Santa Society, said some Santas are doing just that.
“A number have decided they are just going to sit it out, for health reasons primarily and because they’re not interested in doing virtual work,” he said. “The folks who want a Santa visit might find it difficult to find someone available, because the numbers are just going to be down.”
Greenleaf said members have been hosting Zoom calls to share tips and tricks about how to make this year work despite the setbacks. But many workers are sure to take a financial hit.
As ambitious Santas eye their next moves, public events that typically feature Kris Kringle are also making changes.
At Zoo New England’s “ZooLights" experience, Santa will not be there in person. Instead, the nonprofit is offering live video chats. While Santa will attend the Boston Common Tree Lighting ceremony, the event itself will be virtual. As for Faneuil Hall Marketplace? No holiday tree, no “Blink" lights program, and no “Selfies with Santa” due to COVID-19, organizers said.
Malls are still forging ahead with Santa setups on site, but with significant safety measures in place.
At the Natick Mall, guests will step into a "magical elevator” that will transport them to the North Pole — where Santa, wearing a mask, will greet them in a socially distanced environment. One group will be allowed in at a time, and there will be no sitting on Santa’s lap, a mall spokesman said.
Simon Property Group, which owns multiple malls around the state, including the Burlington Mall, South Shore Plaza, and Square One Mall, also will have socially distanced visits. Parents are encouraged to schedule appointments online in advance.
“The experience will be contactless and children will not sit on Santa’s lap,” according to Cherry Hill Programs, which partners with Simon to deliver the holiday experience. “In addition, masks will be worn by Santa, staff, and guests.”
The company’s website notes that in between shifts, Santa’s suit is regularly sprayed with disinfectant.
And at Bass Pro Shops in Foxborough, families will have to remain behind a plexiglass divider after getting a temperature check.
“Santa Dan” Rapoza, one of the Santas who started seeing children at the wilderness-themed shop recently, said helpers — “elves, if you will” — sanitize the barricade and seated surface after every family. He also has to wear a plastic facemask with his red hat.
“It’s a different environment," said Rapoza, 70.
But for all of the changes, one thing remains certain, said Jordan, the sprightly Santa with the Zoom manual at the ready.
“Nothing is stopping Christmas,” he said.