One of the saddest moments in Seattle’s Christmas history was when Nordstrom announced last month that there would be no visits with Santa. No little house at the corner of Sixth and Pine, and the first Christmas without Santa photos at that location since Frederick & Nelson started the tradition in 1940.
Along with the lives and the livelihoods, the evenings out and parties in, the pandemic has taken the sacred seasonal meeting between Santa Claus and children. After months of missing friends and online learning, they surely needed a moment with the man who could make magic happen.
And so, adjustments were made: In malls and stores, Santas donned masks and set their red velvet chairs behind a plexiglass wall. Others set up spots outdoors, like Black Santa in the parking lot of the Rainier Beach Community Center.
Jim Beidle, who has been performing as Santa for eight years, started making video calls to children from his Arlington home, where he boosted his internet connection, set up a dome light and donned a puffy shirt and vest so he wouldn’t overheat.
Whatever it takes, he said, to keep that annual Christmas connection going.
“The children need to know that some things have remained,” Beidle said, “and Santa is someone who has been steadfastly part of our diverse cultural community since the 1870s.
“That sort of pillar of the season needs to be maintained,” he said. “And this is a good way of doing it.”
Dan Kemmis worried for months about whether he would be able to be Santa this year. Then he purchased a clear plastic globe and set it up in front of an insurance office on Greenwood Avenue so people could see him through the transparent barrier. Now called The Seattle Santa, Kemmis visits with families — and waves at pedestrians and passing cars — from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day until Dec. 23. (He takes lunch from 2-2:30 p.m.)
“I’m really liking the globe,” Kemmis said the other evening, sitting beside a Christmas tree and in front of a snowy-tree backdrop. “This speaks to the positive side of adapting.”
Mitch Allen, the founder of HireSanta, a Dallas-based company that staffs Christmas characters around the country, called this time of year “Mardi Gras, the Super Bowl and the Olympics all at once.”
Maybe more so this year than any other.
“People need and want Santa,” Allen said. “There is a need for a sense of what’s normal. There’s a bigger need for Santa than ever before. He’s the embodiment of the love and joy of the season.”
When HireSanta’s normal corporate and private bookings “dropped off the radar” last spring, Allen revamped services by sending out hundreds of “Santa shields” for in-person, retail visits, which dropped off by about 20%. Still, Allen thinks the company will break even.
The company also started to offer virtual visits and recorded greetings, so as not to put children — or white-bearded Santas — at risk.
“Their demographic is at a high risk for a negative outcome, if they get COVID-19,” Allen said via phone from his Dallas headquarters. “Keeping Santa safe is our number one priority.
“You’re not going to catch COVID by talking to Santa over the internet,” Allen said, adding that children haven’t missed a beat, since so much of their lives are spent online. They even ask Santa questions in the chat box.
“They talk to their friends on FaceTime, they Zoom with their teachers, they’re glued to their phones,” Allen said. “So naturally, Santa is online. Parents don’t think it’s natural, but kids don’t think it’s strange at all.”
And is it so bad to get a little space between a child and an icon like Santa?
“I never liked the way parents throw their kids at me,” said Kemmis, sitting in his globe the other evening. “This slows it all down. It’s still a really tactile and intimate thing.”
With the globe, kids and adults were able to take a moment to take him in, approaching slowly or walking right up to face him, the clear layer of plastic and a few feet the only thing between them.
“This all may set the stage for rethinking the Santa interaction,” he said.
Beidle agreed, saying that people enjoy seeing Santa from their homes, on their own schedules, and for much longer than “the typical mall shoot.”
But he misses seeing the kids in person, and thinks that this year, more than ever, both they and Santa need each other.
“The typical Santa Claus visit is very, very intimate, very personal,” he said. “A lot of hugs and talking with each other inside your father or your grandfather’s bubble, as opposed to the way you would normally talk with a stranger.
“With coronavirus, that’s out of the question.”
The pandemic has also changed what kids say to Santa. After months of being in lockdown with parents and siblings, they’re happy to have someone like him to confide in.
Kemmis recalled a boy who kept inching away from his parents and sister to have a private word with him through the plastic.
“Santa, I just want peace,” he said.
In the house? In the world? Kemmis didn’t have a chance to ask.
“I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll never know.”
Beidle works six- to eight-hour shifts of video calls, seeing about 30 families and more than 100 kids a day. Some have asked him if he will wear a mask, and he has assured them that his elves have put hand sanitizer by the chimneys and doors.
Like Kemmis, he has had interactions that have had a distinct pandemic undertone.
“The whole COVID-19 environment has made things worse and brought some simmering tensions,” he said.
One boy on a video call told him that, after months of his parents fighting, his mother had moved out and taken him with her.
“You do a little bit of psychological first aid,” Beidle said. “Say, ‘Wow, that’s a tough thing you’re going through, and those feelings are genuine feelings, and Santa really cares for you. Santa has got your back, and I will see you on Christmas Eve.’
“There’s nothing you can do but validate their feelings,” Beidle said, “and give them a thumbnail of hope to hold onto.”
And it’s not just children. Kemmis recalled a man who came up and, when asked what he wanted for Christmas, started with, “Well, you can’t help with this …”
He wanted one more Thanksgiving with his parents, Kemmis recalled, before removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes.
“It can be the gift of the season or the terror of the season,” he said of the tears. “I’ve got to stay emotionally strong.”
A moment passed, and a family approached.
“Ho! Ho! Ho!” he said to a couple and a little girl in a red dress. “You look like Christmas itself!”
She beamed, then turned around so her mother could take a picture. Kemmis got out of his chair and stood behind her and smiled through the plastic.
“Here we go,” he said. “Let’s make a wonderful picture.”
More families approached, and Kemmis waited for parents to grab cameras and remove coats while the kids took him in. He passed the time with a song: “I’m making a list and checking it twice … I, I, I am coming to town!”
Wendy Petersen brought her 3-year-old daughter, Amelie, and 10-month-old twin sons, Connor and Elliott, to see Santa.
“It’s very different,” she said of the dome. “But it’s fun. We’re standing in the rain, and a little distance goes a long way.”
The rest of the year, Kemmis works as a content creator and business development specialist. A few months ago, he had “given up on Santa,” but then got a call from a woman who was asked to be Mrs. Claus at a country-club event — socially distanced, and masked — who needed him.
Kemmis took the money from that gig to buy the clear globe, lights and the tree that stands beside him. “Santa in the Snow Globe” was born.
There’s no cost to anyone, but Kemmis accepts donations through Venmo or cash in a box set on a table a few feet away. In the past, he has taken half of his earnings (about $10,000) and passed out presents in downtown Seattle. This year, the money will go to two families Kemmis knows who are “in tough straits.”
“We’re trying to help,” he said of himself and his partner, Elise, his “shining star.”
Kemmis isn’t worried about the money being stolen. (“If someone was that desperate, then they must really need it.”)
A woman walked by with her dog and waved. A man stopped to pass him a bag of trail mix. The families kept coming.
“Best job in the world,” Kemmis said. “I thought there was no way this year. But every day, my cup overfloweth.
“And it’s not me. It’s the honor of the man in the red suit.”