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From lap to laptop: Santa's gone remote, but video calls take some extra magic

While Santas have pivoted to video calls or plexiglass screens, they miss some of the old magic. “I can’t hold babies, I don't have any children on my knee,” one Santa portrayal artist said.
Image: Collage of vintage images of children looking at a laptop with Santa holding a card that reads,\"Merry Christmas\".
Virtual Santa visits may offer some things traditional retail visits can't.Anjali Nair / NBC News; Getty Images

Santa Claus is just like the rest of us in the pandemic, pivoting to remote, practicing social distancing, and working harder for the same pay.

Men who professionally portray Santa estimate they have seen a 30 to 50 percent drop in income from doing video call visits instead of a traditional mall, retail, or hired event, all while putting in as many hours, said Jim Beidle, 61, a Seattle-area Santa portrayal artist.

“Hit the go button and hopefully the family is all ready to go and the tech is ready,” Beidle told NBC News of the virtual visits. “I spend about five minutes entertaining children and getting their Christmas list and answering questions about the North Pole. ‘How’s Rudolph, what’s your favorite cookie, and how are the elves doing?’ Then at the end of the visit I start wrapping up, and it takes a minute to get my brain reset and set up the equipment.” In one day he visited with 23 families in an eight-hour shift, up to six families per hour.

From a socially-distanced snow globe, Santa chats with a visiting child on Dec. 6, 2020 in Seattle.David Ryder / Getty Images

“I will have more gigs because of virtual visits and make approximately same amount money and I will work harder,” Stephen Arnold, 70, president of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, and a Santa portrayal artist, based in Memphis, Tennessee, said.

Retired men and truck drivers, some on their flip phones, have had to invest in headsets, green screens, lights, cameras, and upgraded computers.

It can be a grind. There are faces frozen mid-song and dropped calls. Retired men and truck drivers, some on their flip phones, had to invest in headsets, green screens, lights, cameras, upgraded computers, and learn to not point the camera up their nose. Men who were used to a basic “Ho, ho, ho” and “What’s on your Christmas list?” with a new kid every 90 seconds have had to script out 10-minute-long interactions.

These Santas have already put in a significant investment for the love of children and to qualify for the best gigs. Top-tier professional Santas may spend $18,000 on their suit, $3,000 on their beard and $500 for a quality buckle. Normally, a Santa visit at your home might run $150 to $225 per hour. Now, some Santas are making $10 every 15 minutes on Zoom calls, or about $40 an hour.

But the virtual experiences can offer some things traditional retail visits can’t. Families can fill out questionnaires ahead of time so Santa already knows tidbits about them and can weave them into the conversation.

“When you see a child eye’s glow, ‘Oh Mommy, Santa knows I like ballet!’ you don’t get that at the mall,” Susen Mesco, founder of American Events, which books Santas for live and virtual events. This year she remortgaged her house to pay for a brand new online platform, complete with videos, games, auto-responders and all the bells and whistles.

The response from kids and families has been very good, Mitch Allen, founder of HireSanta, said in an email.

“Children are already used to FaceTime, Zoom and Teams with their classes and grandparents. They’re very technologically savvy. It seems natural to interact with Santa,” through a computer screen, said Allen. “This year I think the world really needs Santa more than any other year. There’s a longing for normal things and Christmas spirit.”

His biggest challenge is staffing. It’s a perennial issue, since there’s always more demand for Santa than there are Santas to go around — but it’s even more acute this year because some Santas decided to sit out the season or could not adapt to the technological needs.

Many Santas have switched to mostly virtual because of the risks to others and themselves, and the men who portray Santa also tend to be in some of the higher risk categories for coronavirus.

“Most of us had some kind of heart problem, many of us are obese and have had diabetes. I wear a CPAP mask [to help with sleep apnea]. I tick every box for high risk,” said Arnold.

“We’ve lost four Santas in the past four weeks,” due to the coronavirus, he said.

Stephen Arnold, a Santa portrayal artist, poses for a photo inside a protective plastic bubble with a family of three at a downtown event in Memphis on Dec. 4, 2020.Courtesy Stephen Arnold

Despite the risks, some traditions are hard to give up.

Some Santas are still doing in-person and retail events, but with new safety measures: Santa sits behind an acrylic glass screen, or arrives on a fire truck and stays there, or appears in a large inflatable plastic snow globe.

A handful are still doing some select in-person visits.

“One family had already tested positive and been symptomatic, and then tested negative and had the antibodies,” said David Lewis, 68, a Santa portrayal artist from Dallas, Texas. “So I visited and kept some distance,” without a mask, he said.

But without the up-close experience, he misses some of the old magic. “I can’t hold babies, I don't have any children on my knee,” he said.

Like everyone else, Santas are weighing their choices and risks. Beidle said he turns down multiple requests per week from families contacting him through a gig message board who want a completely “old-fashioned” experience.

“There’s a lot of folks out there who are absolutely wrapped around the axle of the way Santa visits happen from 1950s, where you saw Santa in one place and put a child on Santa’s knee and got a screaming kid photo,” he said.

“They’re looking for Santa to come to the house for an hour. Five kids and 20 adults, and they want the kids to sit on Santa's knee without a mask and sit for a pic. For an hour,” Beidle said.

“I get where you’re coming from, and feel for you folks,” he said. “But let’s try again next year.”