This year, Santa Claus is just a video call away
With malls shuttered and gatherings postponed, performers are rethinking their model
2020 will be remembered as the year that gatherings went virtual — and for Santa Claus, it's no different.
"I will not take a child on my lap until there's a vaccine that's effective," said Gerry Ouellette, better known by his stage name Santa Gee, in an interview with Cross Country Checkup.
In a typical year the Chatham, Ont.-based Santa Claus performer would have a schedule full of photo sittings with families by now, and would be gearing up for home visits, corporate parties, tree lighting ceremonies and parades in his best red and white.
But because the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the cancellation of holiday celebrations and made private visits potentially unsafe, kids can now share their wish lists with Santa Gee in a video call.
And, given the circumstances, he says it's not all that bad.
"I am performing on a daily basis from Vancouver all the way to St. John's, N.L.," he said. In addition to virtual one-on-one visits scheduled by parents, Ouellette will be making video appearances at a mall in the country's eastern-most province.
"Where I used to have a geographic area of the [Greater Toronto Area] and Toronto, I now have the globe."
With malls closed and businesses celebrating the holiday season differently, it's a challenging year for some Santa Claus performers, according to Rozmin Watson. Watson is the founder of Hire a Santa, which books performers across the country and even offers a Santa school in Vancouver.
More challenging still are ever-changing regional pandemic restrictions.
"Yesterday, we had three retailers in B.C. that were told they had to put everything on hold until Dec. 7," she said.
As a result of the pandemic, her company has also switched primarily to an online model for Santa visits.
"We ask everybody what their COVID plan is. At the beginning of this season, we implemented that request and a lot of them are complying."
Video chats allow for songs, stories
Floyd Blakeney, who has performed as Santa Claus for about 40 years in the Halifax area, says up until two or three weeks ago, he was "booked over my head" with private engagements.
"I didn't get any corporate events at all this year … I was getting all home visits, which is good, I like it," he told Checkup.
But as coronavirus cases in Nova Scotia began to rise, he's seen a wave of cancellations — and he's starting to rethink home visits too.
"I'm encouraging you to do it outside," he said. "I'll go to your place and ... take some photos out in the front of the house. I'll speak to the children, things like that, and, hey, people are up to it."
The best part? Blakeney says the kids, typically six to eight-year-olds, don't seem bothered by the change.
Next week, he'll begin virtual visits — and that means coming up with new material.
"It's longer appointments than you'd have at the mall," he said. "So we can sing a song or two and … I might be able to read you a Santa story."
Because virtual visits are planned by parents in advance, Ouellette says that he can actually make a deeper connection with children who he might otherwise only meet briefly.
"I've got all the information on the child now before I make that visit, so it's a very, very personal visit. The look on their faces is just amazing. In a lot of ways, it can be better than a home visit," he said.
The virtual visits have also been a boon for children with special needs who struggle in busy settings like malls. "They're very comfortable in their own home," he said.
Like Blakeney, Ouellette is also getting requests — sometimes 10 per day, he says — for home visits and private parties.
But as the pandemic perseveres, he's sticking to video calls from the North Pole.
"I won't be in any situation that's going to chance the children getting sick," he said.
Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Steve Howard.