A COVID Christmas choice: To Santa or not to Santa?

Derek "Santa Derek" Dugan working on a train in front of his virtual workshop background, which he is using to do virtual visits with children this year due to the coronavirus. Courtesy of Dugan
Derek "Santa Derek" Dugan working on a train in front of his virtual workshop background, which he is using to do virtual visits with children this year due to the coronavirus. Courtesy of Dugan

As the pandemic ravaged the spring, thousands of Santas around the world wondered what would become of Christmas. They chatted on message boards and on Zoom, beards draped over computer keyboards, debating how they could playing their role in this socially distant year.

“People need us,” said Derek “Santa Derek” Dugan of Gainesville.

Glenn “Santa Glenn” Johnson of Woodstock felt the same because the holiday season is supposed to be “the most joyous time of the year.”

Glenn "Santa Glenn" Johnson. Courtesy of Johnson
Glenn "Santa Glenn" Johnson. Courtesy of Johnson

These people had taken an oath before they put on the suit, and they intended to keep it.

“I promise to use ‘my’ powers to create happiness, spread love and make fantasies come to life in the true and sincere tradition of the Santa Claus legend,” they had said in part, hand raised to God and all the Santas who came before. “I pledge myself to these principles as a descendant of St. Nicholas, the Gift Giver of Myra.”

Now they pledged to find a way to live out their oath in 2020 with virtual visits and extra careful in-person events.

But as Christmas drew closer, as COVID-19 cases broke daily records daily, as the chill in the air drove people indoors where the virus is more likely to spread, one of the Santas started to wonder if he was doing the right thing.

Zoom calls from the North Pole

Johnson and Dugan have both played Santa more than 10 years. They see it as a way to help children feel the magic of the season while celebrating the birth of Christ. “What better career can you choose to help people where all you have to do is love and spread joy?” said Dugan.

This summer, they were happy when the Santa Claus Conservatory came up with online courses to help Santas go virtual. They learned camera operations, lighting and blue screen technology (green was out because so many Santas use a bit of the Christmas color in their costumes).

In Gainesville, Dugan upgraded his webcam, bought a good microphone, lighting. A graphic designer, Dugan made intricate Santa’s workshop backgrounds and started booking virtual sessions, as well as small in-person visits.

Johnson did much the same in his workshop in Woodstock. He put some backgrounds together, though none looked good enough to him. He booked in-person events and looked forward to them, to the best part of his year.

Hard choices

Then the news: most cases in a day, most cases in a day since yesterday, hospitals filling, stark warnings about a devastating winter.

Around the same time, Johnson started having computer trouble. He noticed his internet connection was often tenuous, and he couldn’t figure out how to fix it. He imagined a kid staring at Santa suddenly looking at a blank screen. How could he let the children down like that?

Another thought: “Most of us Santas are older, which makes us more susceptible. Most of us are overweight, which makes us more susceptible.”

He decided he couldn’t do it. He canceled all his bookings, the ones online and the ones in-person. A few people asked to hire him for large gatherings, and he not only said no, he asked them to reconsider holding the events.

“It’s just – we can get by without Santa Claus being everywhere this year,” Johnson said.

Dugan didn’t fault Johnson, a fellow Santa whom he’s always respected. But Dugan also decided to keep his plans. He intends to fill the Santa role at Margaritaville at the Lanier Islands Water Park. He’s doing small gatherings, requiring social distancing and asking people to please not allow anyone who is sick to attend. Perhaps the biggest adjustment: he’s asking kids not to sit on his lap.

He feels he’s giving people something they need, especially in this bizarre year of widespread infections, death and toxic politics.

“If you go back to the story of ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas,’” Dugan said, “the Grinch stole the presents, but it didn’t stop the citizens from gathering around the tree in the square and singing.”

‘What would Santa do?’

Johnson doesn’t fault Santas trying to keep traditions alive. It’s just that he asked himself, “What would Santa do?” and the answer he came up with evidently was different from Dugan’s.

To take his mind off the loss, Johnson went to Helen with his wife Michele to stay in a timeshare. They took the Jeep out on forestry roads. They hiked Raven Cliff Falls and Helton Creek Falls. They breathed in the cool mountain air and heard the water slide over the rocks in a wash of static.

As Johnson thought about what Christmas will be like, he knew many families will be hurting. Loved ones who should be there will not, some because they’re afraid of the virus, some because they are gone.

But here’s where Santa Glenn — Mightily Disappointed and Fretful Santa Glenn — finds hope: on Christmas morning, when kids — the most fortunate ones, at least — bound from bed and race to the tree, they will find presents.

“Santa Claus,” Johnson said, “is coming.”

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