Is Santa Claus coming to town? Visiting Saint Nick amid a pandemic

Amanda Collins Bernier
Baystateparent Magazine
Santa visits children from behind a plexiglass divider at Bass Pro Shops this season.

For Bill Barnsley, life is better as Santa Claus. 

The Sturbridge man so adores playing Father Christmas, he’s practically become Santa over the years. He wears his hair in wavy gray locks and a long beard covers his face all year round. 

But being Saint Nick wasn’t even on his radar until three holiday seasons ago, when his manager at Walmart volunteered him for the role during one of his shifts. When he slipped on that red suit, Barnsley found it carried tremendous impact.

“There are things I can do in that suit -- connections I can make and memories I can create -- that would be impossible otherwise,” he said. “It’s really a magical thing.” 

As any parent knows, it’s a magical thing for kids, too. Despite a trying year, American families remain strongly committed to maintaining the warmth and joy of Christmas this holiday season. A recent national survey found that 92 percent of American parents with children under 10 years-old want to hold on to holiday traditions as much as possible this year. And while a COVID Christmas might mean skipping that annual photo on Santa’s lap, there are still ways children can greet Kris Kringle -- 2020 style. 

Barnsley is one of hundreds of Santas working this year with JingleRing, a platform offering live, virtual visits with Santa (and Mrs. Claus, too!), from the comfort of your couch. Starting at $19.95 for a recorded message and $24.95 for a live call, the experience includes a video recording and a photo from the call, and can accommodate up to four guests (ahem, grandparents). 

These virtual visits, which can also be booked through sites including Hire Santa and Santa’s Club are exploding in popularity. And while seeing Santa on screen might feel different, in some ways, the trend could be for the better. 

“A typical meet and greet with Santa means getting the kids dressed, fed and all in a good mood -- all at the same time,” said Barnsley. “Then you wait in line for two hours, take a quick picture and go.” 

Jude McDonald and Bill Barnsley, of Sturbridge, are among hundreds of Mrs. and Mr. Clauses offering virtual visits with children this year.

The digital visits are preplanned, take place in the familiar comfort of home, and can be customized to families’ specific wants and needs. JingleRing, for instance, allows you to choose the language Santa speaks, his ethnicity, whether they want a “faith-based” visit, one where Santa reads kids a story, or brings Mrs. Claus.

Santa’s coming to retailers on screen, too. At Yankee Candle Village, the flagship store in Deerfield where Santa usually arrives by helicopter to much fanfare, the jolly old elf will be streaming from his workshop in the North Pole. For $10, guests can walk through a magical winter wonderland and enjoy a live video visit with Santa. Green-screen photos with Santa and a personalized candle label are included in the experience. 

Santa won’t be visiting the department store Macy’s this year, either — ending a nearly 160-year-old tradition. The chain’s 2020 Santaland instead is on their website, featuring holiday-related activities at home.

Other venues that Santa frequents are offering tweaked face-to-face visits. He’s still appearing at Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, retailers known for their annual Santa experience.

 “With countless activities cancelled and many families dealing with added stress, we feel it’s more important than ever to provide some free Christmas magic and help safely create cherished holiday memories,” said Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris. 

But this year’s free visits are contactless with a plexiglass shield between Santa and the kids. All families will complete temperature screening with a non-contact thermometer prior to entering Santa’s Wonderland, and online reservations are required. 

Simon Property Group, which owns nine properties in Massachusetts including the Auburn Mall, Solomon Pond Mall, Emerald Square and the Shops at Chestnut Hill, is offering socially-distanced holiday experiences that encourage reservations, wearing face masks and other health and safety procedures in order to keep families – and Santas – safe.

Of course, families can always turn to the old socially-distant tradition of sending letters to Santa in exchange for one back. The U.S. Postal Service has relaunched its annual Operation Santa campaign. Letters can be addressed simply to SANTA CLAUS, his official Postal Service address is preferred:

SANTA CLAUS

123 ELF ROAD

NORTH POLE 88888

Write your full name and address in the upper left corner and apply a first-class stamp in the upper right. Letters will populate the USPSOperationSanta.com website, which opens for letter adoption on Friday, Dec. 4. Letters received before Dec. 15 are most likely to receive a response from a Santa volunteer.