Santa Terry works in the Wilmington area. The trick to maintaining Christmas spirit amid a pandemic, he said, is being creative in socially distancing. (Mandy Watkins Chapman/Twig & Feather Photography) Santa in Wilmington
Santa Terry works in the Wilmington area. The trick to maintaining Christmas spirit amid a pandemic, he said, is being creative in socially distancing. (Mandy Watkins Chapman/Twig & Feather Photography)

Long walks on the beach with Santa? Coronavirus is hard on everyone. But these NC Santas say he’s up for the challenge.

It’s two days before Christmas, and Santa Claus, a personal friend of Cardinal & Pine, has a lot on his mind. 

His magical night and long to-do list await, of course, but while every holiday season presents logistical challenges, 2020 has tested even the most determined St. Nick.

Amid a pandemic that has stolen so much, the state’s previously booming Santa Claus industry has faced widespread event cancellations, falling revenue and a virus that poses a particular risk to the older performers who wear the red suit. 

In interviews with Cardinal & Pine, several NC Santas and Mrs. Clauses said they’ve had to make significant adjustments in order to ensure that their businesses survive, protect a fragile Christmas spirit and keep everyone safe from a virus that shows no signs of taking a holiday. 

It could be Santa’s biggest challenge yet. 

For those who celebrate Christmas, Santa has always been a comfort. He waited for us at the end of every hard year and was an emblem of kindness and hope. We sat on his lap and whispered our dreams into his ear.

The traditions are not simply rote gestures.

“Santa brings instant happiness,” said Santa Rick, the owner and operator of the Northern Lights Santa Academy and a Santa talent agency in Georgia. “It’s really an amazing power Santa has.”

But the pandemic prohibits the kind of close interactions children long for and for which Santas are known. There is no sitting on Santa’s lap, no hugs, no lines of expectant children.

Priorities have changed, these Santas said, and nothing is more important than stopping the virus’s spread.

Santa Duane
Santa Duane (Duane Reaugh) performed a home visit on the porch for Lydia Strickland, in the red bow, and Natalie Strickland, in the white bow. Two neighbors wandered over to see Santa as well. (Photo by Veronica Strickland)

‘We Have a Big Problem’

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert, said in November that Santa Claus was immune to the novel coronavirus, and over the weekend he went further, saying that he had traveled to the North Pole himself to give Santa the vaccine. But he has also told the grownups repeatedly that Christmas this year should not be business as usual.

While Santa might have immunity, the performers who play him do not. In fact, most of them are especially vulnerable.

“Most Santas are over 65 and 50 pounds overweight,” said Santa Rick, who manages dozens of Santas in North Carolina. They are also more likely to have high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and lung disorders, he said. “It’s very important that we protect Santa so that Santa can protect everyone else.”

Santa Rick requires all of his performers to adhere to strict COVID protocols, including masks and distancing, both at his school and through his National Santa Agency. There is, he said, a strict no-touching policy. 

Catie Armstrong, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, told Cardinal & Pine that the department was unaware of any Santa-specific spreading cases in the state. (A longtime Santa Claus for the town of Lincolnton, NC, died of the virus in November, but he contracted the virus in October and not through a Santa-related event.) Armstrong said that state guidance for Santa and other winter events continued to emphasize small outdoor gatherings with masks and distance.

But in terms of Christmas spirit, that guidance can feel like a lump of coal. 

Santa Fabian
Fabian Williams, a Santa working with Santas Just Like Me, a business offering Black Santa visits. The owner, Stafford Braxton, bought the sleigh this year, painted it and made it sparkle, all part of his pandemic business plan. It offers a way to provide safer distance than the normal sit-on-Santa’s lap experience. (Stafford Braxton/Santas Just Like Me)

‘A Constant Battle’

Santa Terry, also known as Terry Stephens, 58, has performed in the Wilmington area for the past six years. Keeping his distance from the children has been the biggest adjustment, he said.

“You have no physical contact and that is very difficult,” he said. “Some [children] want to run up and hug you. They just desire that reassurance. It’s a constant battle.”

He relies on parents to keep the children at a safe distance, but they are not always reliable.

“Some parents have encouraged their kids to come up to me,” Santa Terry said, “and it puts you in an awkward spot because you’re having to hold them off and not be the accepting Santa you normally would be with kids.”

But if anyone can do it, it’s Santa Claus. After all, his parents died in a plague.

A Christmas Story

Legend has it that the parents of St. Nicholas, the 3rd century figure who gave rise to the modern Santa, died in an epidemic while he was young. They left him a vast fortune, but he worked tirelessly to give  it away – to the sick, to the hungry and poor, to children orphaned by disease. He is the patron saint of children.

So Santa can handle wearing a mask. 

“I look at it as a leadership role,” Santa Terry said. “We need to keep each other safe, so if I’m not willing to adhere to some of the standards, then I don’t think it is communicating the appropriate message to people.”

These Santas all said they followed state guidelines closely, but many of them added extra precautions, especially those that do home visits. 

Santa Rick’s performers conduct temperature checks and ask screening questions of all guests, he said. While most of his clients have complied with his safety checks, he has turned down events when he had concerns.

“I’ve had people call me that are going to have 80 people in their house at a Christmas party and I’ve had to say ‘I will not work for you’ because there is no way we can have 80 in a house without masks safely,” he said. 

And that photo with Santa wearing masks? That is not Christmas heresy, Santa Rick said. It’s a major historical document.

“In five or 20 years, people are going to look back on them, and it’s going to be a great picture to have.”

Santa Terry
Santa Terry (Terry Stephens) and Mrs. Claus (Celeste Stephens). (Image courtesy of Santa Terry)

The Costs of Wonder

Being a professional Santa takes a deep commitment to detail, and it’s often year round.There are sleigh bells, elaborate backdrops, and special props, and with each, like many things, you get what you pay for. Some Santas have to dye their beards. It’s a classic vital look, and it doesn’t just happen. 

“The Santa Claus industry can be a very expensive industry to get into,” said Santa John, also known as John Palinkas, who runs a Santa business in Statesville with his Ms. Claus, Sherry Williams. 

“Children love Santa regardless,” Santa John said, “so even if it is a fake beard with a vinyl belt and a vinyl boot-tops, they’ll love santa. But the client is the one who pays. It’s all about making that whole thing look as real as possible.”

So when a year’s profits fall far from the mark, it can make Santa nervous.

“To be honest, this year we’re probably down 75%,” Santa John said. 

His business covers the Piedmont and South Carolina, and most years he and Ms. Claus  work seven days a week. They employ 25 people and were among 100 Santas selected to participate in How to Save Christmas, a national group working to ensure children get at least virtual visits this year. 

It was clear in the spring, they said, that Christmas would be different, so they made some investments in things to get them through. They expect some of them to pay off for years to come. They expanded their virtual presence extensively and bought a motorized sleigh so they could do safe house calls. And there was an unexpected bright side to having a more forgiving calendar.

“This is,” Santa John said, “the first year we’ve been able to celebrate Thanksgiving.”

‘Left Out for So Long’

All of the Santas work hard for their money — but to them, it’s about far more than a paycheck.

“The Black community has felt left out for so long,” said Stafford Braxton, who started Santas Just Like Me in 2013, offering Black Santa appearances in Raleigh and Durham. “When we grew up, there were so many Christmas movies, but we weren’t featured in them. So there is that inner longing to see someone like you represented in a positive way. Santa represents that.”

None of the 100 “How to Save Christmas” Santas, for example, are Black. 

In a few years Braxton’s company has built a wide following, expanding its appearances to the Triad and the Charlotte area, and had expected to work in South Carolina and Virginia this year. 

“But, as we all know, that’s been put on hold,” he said.

The company normally does some 40 in-person events a season, he said. This year, they’ve done five.

To minimize the amount of time a group is near his Santas, Braxton also limited the number of photos taken per family, which means fewer poses, fewer faces, and fewer photos sold. 

Revenue is down, but virtual appearances have expanded his reach after all.

“If we had a national following before now,” he said, “I didn’t know about it. But we’ve gotten calls from California, Michigan, Iowa, Massachusetts, Baltimore, Louisiana, Texas, so that seems like it’s going to be our saving grace this season.”

He added: “But I tell people, ‘We’re in survival mode right now.’”

Mrs. Clause and Santa
Mrs. Claus (Sherry Williams) and Santa John (John Palinkas), owners of Classic Claus, a Santa business in Statesboro. “The Santa Claus industry can be a very expensive industry to get into,” said Santa John, because of the need for high quality suits and props. Revenues are down for most Santa performers this year, compacting the financial challenges. (Joyful Mess Photography)

Keep Christmas With You

The real Santa may have gotten the vaccine, but one performer built his whole operation around getting his own. 

Santa Duane, 73, is the Santa at Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh. When Pfizer sought volunteers for its vaccine clinical trial, Santa Duane, also known as Duane Reaugh, signed up immediately. He got his first shot in September, paying a little extra to find out whether he had the placebo or the real thing. It was the real thing.  

Without the vaccine, he said, “I would have taken the year off.”

Inoculation put him at ease regarding his own health, but he still insists on wearing masks to protect others.

“A vaccine only protects the person who got the shot,” he said. “A mask protects everybody else.”

In November, he made a video preaching the importance of masks and other safety measures. He also assured children that everyone at the North Pole was following protocols, and that, yes, there would be a Christmas this year.

Revenue is down about 25% he said, and though he is still working hard, he said, he is not a fan of virtual visits.

“They are just not the same,” Santa Duane said. “I am eager to get back to in-person all the time.”

New Possibilities

All of Santa Terry’s lucrative clients canceled this year, including the Wilmington Children’s Museum. But, being willing to adjust has been key to maintaining Christmas Spirit, and has produced some pleasant surprises.

He and Mrs. Claus normally appear at the boardwalk at Carolina Beach, but this year the town arranged a golf cart parade through the neighborhoods. 

Santa and Mrs. Clause rode on the back of a firetruck as it made its way from home to home. Residents dressed up and came onto their lawns. They made fires in fire pits. 

It was, he said, one of the couple’s favorite events they’ve ever done. “We were coming to them, as opposed to them coming to us,” he said. “People have been confined to their house for so long,” he said. “You could just see the excitement.”

An Important Magic Trick

If Santa is reassurance, magic is restoration. 

“If you’re a Santa, you want to get in front of small children and reassure them that the world is not going to end,” Santa Duane said.

To make this point, he does a magic trick for children. He shows them a rope with a knot in the center, because tight knots, like hard times, can happen. Santa then shows the child that sometimes, with a little magic and a little faith, you can make the knot disappear.

This year, even the adults were not so sure. But the Santas haven’t lost faith.

”I tell people all the time that Christmas is coming,” Santa Duane said. “It might have changed a little, but nothing can stop the Christmas spirit.”