The virus that stole Christmas: meet the Santas giving this season a miss

Holly Burns
·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Ritzau Scanpix/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Ritzau Scanpix/Reuters

Randyl Lee Walker starts bleaching his hair and beard every October. Both are dark, so it takes six weeks to reach the snow-white shade he’s going for. When he’s finished the result is nothing short of transformative.

Related: Elbow bumps and open windows: UK scientific advisers' Christmas tips

“If I walk down the street in jeans and a black coat, I’m just some big guy with a big beard,” says Walker, 63, who lives in Rochester Hills, Michigan. “Nobody looks at me, and if they do, it’s with apprehension. But the next day, I’ll walk down the same street in a red coat, with a white beard and hair, and everyone smiles and waves.”

Walker, who endearingly signs his emails “HO HO HOPE to hear from you”, is a professional Santa Claus. He is also, thanks to his homegrown facial hair, a member of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas (IBRBS), which includes more than 2,200 performers nationwide. Growing up, he’d planned to become a chef, but after doing a magic show at a party when he was 13 (he still has the thank you note from the woman who hired him) he discovered how much he enjoyed entertaining. In his 20s, he helped a friend who was photographing a holiday event at a mall. “I put the red suit on in 1980,” he says. “And that was it, I was hooked.”

Forty years on, this Christmas looks very different for Walker. Between public events and home visits, he estimates that he makes 75 to 100 appearances every season. But in 2020, the year of unprecedented disruption, “I’ve only agreed to two,” he says.

And he’s not the only one scaling back. Joe McGrievy, 74, who trains Santas for the hiring agency San Diego Santas and is a member of IBRBS and the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas (Forbs), says three of his performers have pulled out this year because of coronavirus concerns. McGrievy himself, whose voluminous white beard and wardrobe of red shirts get him grins at the grocery store year-round, says he’s “not doing Santa as normal this season”.

It’s indicative of a larger trend in the Santa landscape, explains the Pittsburgh-based Santa Lance Skapura (email signoff: “May your cookies always be warm and your milk cold”). “A significant number of my colleagues are hanging up the red suit for 2020 because many of us are in high-risk categories: old, overweight and with underlying medical conditions,” says Skapura, 58. Other Santas, like Walker, agree: “I couldn’t even tell you a Santa who doesn’t have sleep apnea.”

It feels like a cruel Christmas twist that the typical criteria for playing Santa also contribute to higher coronavirus risk but the science is overwhelming.

When you dress up in a costume, people can stop thinking of you as a human being

Robert Seutter

“There is a huge body of evidence indicating that males over 60 are at a much higher risk of becoming infected with Covid-19,” said Dr Marvin Birnbaum, president of the World Association for Disaster and Emergency Medicine. “They have a higher risk of developing a more serious version of the disease and a higher likelihood of dying from it. It’s even more dangerous if they’re obese or have accompanying medical conditions.”

This makes a job whose main prerequisite is getting up close and personal with potentially germy people risky. “Pretty much the whole Santa community gets sick during the holidays,” said Robert Seutter, 60, a Santa in Westlake Village, California. “You can’t see a thousand kids and not.”

But catching a cold is one thing; risking lives is another. Skapura’s father is 94 and in an assisted living facility. Walker’s wife and daughter have underlying health issues. And while Santas, like drug dealers, tend to have a loyal and delighted fanbase, they still need to look out for number one. “A woman asked to book me for a multi-family party, no masks, where I was the only one who’d have to take a Covid test beforehand,” says Seutter. “When you dress up in a costume, people can stop thinking of you as a human being.”

Seutter has decided against all home visits this year and cut live engagements from around 100 to one or two – “outdoors, on stage, and with the audience way the heck away from me”. Skapura will still do a few mall gigs, but with precautions: at a desk, behind a transparent barrier, wearing cotton “workshop garb” that can be washed more quickly than the dry-clean-only velvet suit. He’s reduced his home visits from 50-ish to 10 or 20 and has added a strict Covid-19 rider to his contract: masks, a six-foot buffer and no sitting on Santa’s knee. “I adore giving you presents,” he says. “I don’t want to give you coronavirus.”

But Santa skipping the regular season doesn’t mean no Santa at all. Following in the path of happy hours and yoga classes, the Christmas spirit has shifted to the small screen. In 2019, HireSanta.com needed fewer than 10 Santas to satisfy the demand for virtual visits, said its founder, Mitch Allen; this year, it has had to hire several hundred more. John LoPorto, CEO of TalktoSanta.com, said his company was doing “hundreds of thousands of video chats” this season, compared with tens of thousands last year. And Jingle Ring, launched in March, has hired 300 performers – gradually but deliberately increasing its base of Black and Latino Santas – and will hire up to 300 more, says its founder, Walt Geer.

One of Jingle Ring’s new recruits is McGrievy, who’s trying to make up what he estimates is a 50%-75% hit to his income this year. Walker, who has invested money creating a studio and buying equipment for virtual visits, is similarly nervous about cash, but sees at least one upside: “I’m more likely to be alive in January,” he says.

One person who isn’t pivoting to virtual visits is Joe Kapelewski, 59, a retired auditor accountant in Richmond, Virginia, whose favorite experience playing Santa came when an older gentleman walked up to him and inquired what had happened to the bicycle he asked for 60 years ago. With most of his engagements canceled, Kapelewski says he is referring clients who want virtual visits to other Santas he knows. “It’s one way I can keep the spirit of Christmas going this season,” he says.

As for when things potentially get back to normal for Santas across the country? “I don’t think any of us knows,” says Walker.

The loss is far more than financial, says Seutter. “Being Santa is one of the last few roles in society, especially as a man, where you can show love in a kind, generous way that’s completely platonic,” he says. “Each day we get to be Santa is precious. The pandemic has taken a chunk of those days that we’ll never get back.”

But as you might expect from a group of people for whom the most commonly used descriptor is “jolly”, the Santas remain cheerful.

“I’m still going to give 110% to spread joy, because it’s what I love doing,” says Skapura. “Some of the best tales I tell now are about situations that seemed terrible at the time. The great thing about memory is that it files away the rough edges.”