It’s a holiday tradition for countless families: kids line up at malls, in downtown squares and at private parties, eagerly waiting to meet the big man in red and get their photo taken. But the COVID-19 pandemic has derailed the rite of passage of sitting on Santa’s lap before Christmas, forcing holiday performers to find new ways to connect with youngsters looking to check their status on the naughty or nice list. Our Max Martin spoke with Bill and Margaret Nadalin, who have been performing as Santa and Mrs. Claus for 10 years. Here’s how the pandemic has changed their December:
Bill and Margaret mostly perform at corporate parties and events. Bill also has been at Woodstock’s Santa House in Museum Square, and in a typical year, would give out coffee at local Tim Hortons’ drive-through windows.
He’s done the CP Holiday Train launch in Hamilton before, but doesn’t do malls, opting for more personal experiences where he can talk with kids longer, instead of just snapping a quick photo.
“Just to see a kid smile, and their eyes get as big as saucers, and say, ‘Wow, I would like to have this and like to have that,” Bill said. “I get a charge out of it.”
“We work as a team. I go as Mrs. Claus, and Bill is Santa,” Margaret said. “Santa’s the star, but I wrangle the kids, get the gifts, and make them wait just a bit before they get to meet Santa.”
The Nadalins, who live south of Woodstock in Sweaburg, have cancelled all of their in-person appearances this year. They’re opting to post stories on their Facebook page, and are booking virtual meetings with kids.
“We really have had a good response to the stories. We’ve had a lot of people watching them,” Margaret said. “Every year, we invest in a new costume or a new wig or beard for Santa, this year the only thing we bought was a microphone, just to record the stories.”
Margaret – who cares for her 92-year-old mother – said it was the safest decision for both them and their clients.
They’ve decorated their living room, setting up a Christmas tree beside a gas fireplace to be a North Pole backdrop for the digital calls.
While Bill isn’t a mall Santa, that experience is typically a staple in the holiday season. Most malls have scrapped all in-person visits amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s going to be so hard for kids,” Bill said. “Every kid wants to run up and hug Santa and sit on his lap.”
An added 2020 bah-humbug for Bill? He was planning to ditch a glue-on beard and unveil his new, personally grown white whiskers for the first time.
“This year, I thought, 'I’m going to grow one,' and now I don’t get to use it,” he said. “But it’ll be ready for next year.”
While a virtual meet-and-greet might be the next best thing, the couple admitted it will be hard to capture that same holiday magic that’s felt by hearing the iconic ho, ho, ho in person.
“We can’t watch the other kids while they are waiting. That’s precious, too. They’re really excited,” Margaret said. “They just can’t wait for their turn.”
“It’s not going to be the same,” on teleconference, Bill added. “It’s going to be a weird year. I can’t wait for it to get behind us.”
Bookings for Santa performers are down about 95 per cent across Canada, said Rozmin Watson, operations manager for Hire A Santa, a national booking agency.
She said while most Santa performers are seasonal workers or retired, they could still be out anywhere between $2,500 and $6,000 depending on if they usually worked in retail or corporate events, and their hours.
Watson said a handful of venues are still doing in-person photographs, with Santa socially distanced or behind plexiglass.
“The fact that there are no more malls … many have been impacted greatly,” Watson said. “It’s been really hard.”
“We were at a family Christmas, and one of the cousins had promised to bring Santa Claus,” Margaret said. “Of course, Santa never showed up and there were a lot of little kids in tears.”
The couple vowed that would never happen again.
Out of coincidence, Bill’s physiotherapist had given him a Santa outfit that used to belong to her father, thinking it might suit him. He donned the beard and red suit next Christmas, and never looked back.
“Since then, we’ve built up a steady clientele and have customers from London to Stratford, Kitchener, into Toronto,” she said. “That’s the sad part of it; we get to know them really well, and we can’t see them this year.”
Yes, COVID-19 restrictions and safety protocols still apply at Santa’s workshop.
“We’ll have to make up a story about what’s going on in the North Pole,” Margaret said. “We have no cases (of COVID-19) there, but we always wash our hands.”
And don’t worry, Santa will be assuring kids they’re still getting their presents this year – sanitized and safely delivered – even if they’re only meeting him online.
“I’ll have to tell them that Santa’s not going to see you (in-person) now, but I’m still going to be there on Christmas Eve, and next year let’s just hope everything is back to normal,” Bill said.
The Nadalins, or rather, Santa and Mrs. Claus, are hoping people follow public health guidance this year to avoid large gatherings and instead reconnect with the meaning of Christmas.
“The close family that you’re with is precious … Think of other people and don’t spread the disease,” Margaret said. “That could be part of the Christmas spirit, just doing your part.”
Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press