On This Day: Oct. 22, 2020
Yes, Virginia, there wasn't a Santa Claus in 2020... at Macy's department stores anyway. Three years ago, the retail giant gave families a pre-holiday season heads-up that jolly old St. Nick wouldn't be leaving the North Pole for in-store sit-downs with eager children clutching their Christmas wish lists.
That decision ended a tradition that stretched all the way back to 1861 when Macy's had just established a foothold in New York City before spreading across the country. And Macy's recognized the weight of the sleigh-driving gift-giver's absence from all of its stores, but especially the 34th Street flagship location in Manhattan, which housed Santaland — the 13,000-foot winter wonderland created just for him.
"For many, visiting Santa at Macy’s has become a long-standing highlight of the holiday season," Susan Tercero, Macy’s vice president of branded entertainment acknowledged in a news release explaining why "The Home of Santa Claus" would be Santa-free for the first time in 159 years. Santa's annual trips to Macy's had endured through world wars, great depressions and times of social unrest. The tradition was even immortalized on the big screen in 1947's Miracle on 34th Street and its 1994 sequel, starring cherubic Mara Wilson.
But Macy's had good reason for breaking its annual date with Santa in 2020. The global COVID-19 pandemic had reached America's shores in February, and New York City was an early epicenter for the novel coronavirus. Ambulance sirens echoed through the largely empty streets throughout the spring and into the early summer, and the death rate was staggeringly high for the first wave of patients hospitalized with COVID.
With no vaccines on the immediate horizon, schools, workplaces and many businesses shut their doors in compliance with the "stop the spread" guidance that was driving the country's pandemic response. After closing stores for the remainder of March, Macy's re-opened with "enhanced cleaning measures" and required facial coverings for staff and customers. But bigger events like Macy's Fourth of July fireworks extravaganza and Thanksgiving Day Parade were reconceived to keep COVID-shy crowds from congregating.
"At Macy’s, the safety of our customers and colleagues is paramount," Terceo noted in the news release, adding that Macy's had come up with a solution that many companies had already adopted — Santa Claus would be going digital. "To replicate the magical experience of visiting Macy’s Santaland for children and their families, we will shift to a virtual engagement this year."
What Happened Next
You can't say that Macy's didn't build a solid digital foundation for its virtual Santaland. After typing the URL into the web browser of their choice (and agreeing to all the required permissions), families would be greeted with a message from Santaland elves and escorted on a virtual trip to Santa's Village and Workshop, with games and images cropping up along the way.
The experience would end with an interactive video meet and greet with Mr. Claus himself, followed by the requisite Santa selfie snap. "Macy’s is delighted to have found a way to ensure even more families can enjoy this treasured experience safely during this festive time of the year," Terceo stated, putting a bow on Macy's pandemic-era gift to customers.
Macy's wasn't the only store to go the virtual Santa route in 2020. Sam's Club extended the offer of free Santa chat sessions to members, while mall Santa provider, Cherry Hill Programs, made it possible for parents to book Zoom sessions with St. Nick. There were even independent Santas who set up their own websites for virtual visits.
"Parents are desperate to find entertainment and something for their kids to do," one of those unaffiliated Santas, Don White, told CNN. And White also found the upside to Zoom chats from his corner of the North Pole. "We usually see the back of a kid's head when they're on our lap, but now we can look into their eyes and know their interests, pets and who they are. You can see their eyes light up."
Interestingly, days after Macy's officially canceled Santa's in-store appearance, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Trump Administration had jettisoned plans for a public service campaign that would have featured Santa Claus performers promoting the benefits of receiving COVID-19 vaccines, which were still in the clinical trial phases. In exchange, those performers would have received early access to the vaccines when approved. Former president Donald Trump — who had been hospitalized with COVID in early October — was reportedly unaware of the Santa plan.
Where We Are Now
Santa Claus wasn't gone from Macy's for long. The following year, the company trumpeted that Rudolph and the rest of the reindeer would be transporting him back to Santaland in three major cities.
"We are particularly overjoyed for the return of in-person visits with Santa Claus at Macy’s Santaland in Chicago, New York and San Francisco," Will Coss, who had succeeded Tercero as Macy’s vice president of Branded Entertainment, said in a statement. "With the health and safety of our staff and guests as our top priority, a team of dedicated elves have taken several steps to produce an experience that is fun, whimsical and one that will create cherished memories long past the season."
But that first year back still featured certain COVID precautions, including masking by both Santa and the kids visiting him in his workshop. Facial coverings were also in effect at the New York store in 2022, as well as an advanced reservation system that kept crowd size manageable.
Reservations will once again be required for Santaland visitors this year, starting Oct. 30 for the Chicago store and Nov. 19 for New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco. (Macy's has yet to announce the masking policy for 2023.) We'll have to check back in 2181 to see if Santa has enjoyed an unbroken 160-year streak of Macy's visits.