Santa Ed Taylor, among the most sought-after Santas in the country, was hosting a six-hour santa summit via Zoom back in April when he noticed that one member of the group had transported himself to the North Pole. “Most of us were sitting around our offices or bedrooms or wherever and this guy comes in and it’s snowing outside his windows and his fireplace is roaring,” he says. “We were all like, ‘What is that?’”
The enterprising Santa was using green screen technology, significantly livelier than the kind you’ll find baked into the video chat platform. For Taylor, who lives in L.A., the implications were obvious. “Almost immediately, I dropped my plans for the next three months and started down a new path,” Taylor wrote in a newsletter for the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas (or FORBS) called “Just Be Claus.”
Anticipating a holiday season without the typical mall engagements because of the ongoing pandemic, Taylor bought a gaming computer and invested in the highest-speed internet service available. (“Santas are like teen gamers now,” he says.) He recruited his wife to design a video background that simulates Santa’s North Pole home and built animated GIFs of his face to send via text before virtual visits with kids.
“I love it—I get to build crafts with kids and meet their pets,” he says. “All these things add to the connection.” Chatting via video is also easier for populations that are often given short shrift during the holiday season, including those with autism and other special needs. “Multiple parents have told me that the color scheme in my background is soothing to their sensitive kids,” he says.
He’s since hosted a six-week course to teach other Santas around the world how to thrive over broadband. Some, he says, were underprepared to extend their fireside chats beyond the one to two minutes they’re typically allowed at department stores.
“You can’t just say ‘ho ho ho’ 30 times,” says Taylor. Since video chats can stretch to almost an hour (Taylor offers 12- to 55-minute sessions on his site), “we have to think about establishing rapport and maintaining that sense of intrigue over a longer period of time.”
As COVID-19 infection rates soar across the country, many Santa performers are hunkering down, building Zoom rooms, and making up for lost mall revenue with individual sessions with kids online. Taylor has in the past declined to say how much he makes in a non-pandemic year playing Santa, but according to another pro, typical mall Santas bring in between $5,000 to $15,000 a year, though Santas in high demand can bring in as much as $25,000. Virtual visits on Taylor’s website run $100 for 12 minutes to $250 for 55 minutes during non-peak hours, and $150 for 12 minutes to $400 for 55 minutes during peak hours. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, a 55-minute video chat with Santa Ed will set you back $750.
According to Mitch Allen, founder of Hire Santa, 30 percent of the Santas on his site aren’t doing an in-person meetings this year, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t happening—people and shopping centers have just had to get creative. Allen says that instead of twirling their beards at the mall, the Santas are doing more outdoor home visits or neighborhood parades with Mrs. Claus sponsored by homeowner’s associations. “Santa isn’t going inside, he’s staying in the front yard,” says Allen.
In L.A., sitting on Santa’s lap may be out of the question this year, but some shopping centers came up with contactless workarounds for kids and their harried parents. For instance, at the Los Angeles Christmas Market, which is currently operating at 5 percent capacity, families can take photos with Santa on a ten-foot, two-row sleigh, with non-reflective plexiglass separating Saint Nick from the specter of baby spit.
Kathryn Burgess built a bulbous, whimsical alternative to the plexiglass divider. Her acrylic “Santa Globes”—which have sold out for the season—come with an origin story: Santa accidentally fell into one after an elf mishap. He’s not permanently trapped, though, just hanging there until New Years. “Some kids ask, ‘Why doesn’t the elf just break the globe?’ but most are excited that there’s a meaningful, creative explanation that isn’t the standard response about the virus.”
For those that can’t afford a $25 to $30 photo session with a professional Santa, one company has offered up an AI alternative. “Ask Santa,” featuring the Grove’s Santa Cortney Loftin, can answer around 200 questions, albeit not always gracefully (stick to wish lists and reindeer and you’re golden.)
Loftin, who says he lives in the “North…ridge of L.A.”, seems comfortable with his new virtual setup, especially compared to the chaos of a socially distant photoshoot with toddlers. “When you’re playing Santa in person and using the shields, the kids still want to get close to you,” he says. “I try to stay neutral because I don’t want to be disciplinarian; I leave that to mom and dad.”
He’s excited about the prospect of an AI version of himself talking to unlimited youngsters. “With Ask Santa, a child could spend all day with me and really dig deep into the consciousness of Santa,” he says. Not that he expects things to get too existential. “Maybe we can talk about the kind of cookies I like to eat and how I help around the house,” he adds.
UPDATE: This article has been updated to reflect that Santa photo ops at both Santa Monica Place and Westfield Century City have shut down due to COVID-19 restrictions.
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