Face time with Santa: Many visits come to life online during COVID-19

Derek Dugan of Buford, known as “Santa Derek," helped other Santas this year with setting up home studios for virtual visits with children. Dugan's schedule this year includes a mix of in-person and online Santa appearances.



Derek Dugan of Buford, known as “Santa Derek," helped other Santas this year with setting up home studios for virtual visits with children. Dugan's schedule this year includes a mix of in-person and online Santa appearances.

Colorful elves dash about the screen labeled “North Pole TV” singing and carrying tools and wrapped boxes. Music plays. A game pops up. Then, time for the main event. The scene switches to a colorful, jampacked toy workshop presided over by ...

Yes, that’s him! Santa! Benignly smiling, white-bearded and red-costumed, he looks like he’s just stepped out of a Coca-Cola ad. And he’s asking, “Hello. Have you been a good little boy or girl?” and “What do you want for Christmas?”

It’s part and parcel of 2020 — the year of COVID. In response, everything from Monday morning department head meetings to Thursday night book clubs has gone virtual, so why not the time-honored holiday visits with the jolly old elf?

In the above instance, “Santa Ed” Taylor is in Medford, Oregon, the computer platform he’s on is a product of metro Atlanta ingenuity and the child ensconced in another video box is from, well, it could be anywhere on the planet.

Yes, you can still find St. Nick at a mall center court or available for private parties, depending on local restrictions and individual safety concerns. What HAS changed is a huge uptick in the demand for professional Kriss Kringles displaying their skills in the online world. And although some of them have been reluctant to embrace the notion, eager kids swimming in a modern-day digital sea believe in an online version of Santa as much as they do in flying reindeer and a sleigh groaning with packages.

It’s a much better turn of events than earlier this year, when the holiday outlook was about as cheery as a lump of coal and a sack of switches — Santa’s traditional “gift” to misbehaving tykes.

Adapting to the times

As the pandemic deepened this spring, professional Mr. and Mrs. Clauses took to message boards, chat rooms and other communications routes and debated how they could play their roles in a year of masks, hand sanitizer, social distancing and, in some cases, shuttered stores and malls.

Health and liability concerns loomed large.

“Let’s face it,” said Doug Boggs, a professional Santa from east Cobb whose wife plays Mrs. Claus. “You have a community of old men who are overweight and many have pre-existing health issues like diabetes.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers that ground zero for potentially serious, even fatal COVID cases. In response, more than a few St. Nicks have hung up their jingling bells, at least for this year.

Boggs said he is fortunate to be a bit younger than some and not burdened with prior medical concerns. He adds, “I don’t blame them. If I was in the same situation, I wouldn’t put myself out there, either.”

Parents worried about their kids becoming sick, or infecting their households. Mall owners and business merchants fretted over potential liability issues.

At roughly the same time, Alpharetta entrepreneur Walt Geer and wife Sarah Blackman were walking and talking in a park near their home and “came to the conclusion that the pandemic was radically going to change everything,” potentially squelching the joy and anticipation of the holiday season.

They looked at the mushrooming use of Zoom and other online hookups. An idea took shape.

The couple co-founded JingleRing — a one-stop platform for holiday visits wrapping scheduling, a database feed for Santa to use during each call, a festive presentation (yes, “North Pole TV”) and payment into one brightly wrapped package. A keepsake video is the cherry on top. They’re at jinglering.com and calls start at $24.95.

Said Geer, “People use Zoom very efficiently for schoolwork and business meetings, but it’s a very sterile, generic-looking experience. We felt like if you were going to talk about Santa, who’s about magic and happiness, that our experience had to reflect that. When you log onto North Pole TV, it’s fun and magical. It looks like it was designed by beings in the business of joy.”

The company was testing and finalizing the system at the beginning of December, preparing for hundreds of hired-on Santas and their spouses to make simultaneous calls around the world, running into an expected tens of thousands by season’s end.

JingleRing dashboard of information seen by Santas during virtual visits.


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The scramble to update and refine technology also gathered momentum elsewhere, even months in advance. Some looked at using a straightforward Zoom of FaceTime hookup; others had more elaborate and far-reaching ideas.

Derek Dugan of Buford — “Santa Derek” — worked to help his fellow Kringles set up home studios in garages and spare bedroom. He says even though his requests for bookings for private events are up 300% — “with things like no parades, people are looking for an outlet” — there’s plenty of demand for Santa putting in screen time, including with hospitalized youngsters to whom he’s made in-person visits in the past. He upgraded his camera and lighting to make sure the existing home studio he uses in his business at santaderek.com was up to the task.

Similarly, the Worldwide Santa Claus Network offered instruction to help video newbies master the twists and turns of narrowcasting online, aiding them with such things as how to utilize blue and green screen technology to create believable backgrounds.

Maintaining traditions

While some of the either real-bearded or so-called “traditional” St. Nicks have wholeheartedly embraced the new way of spreading Christmas cheer, others are more hesitant — or have even ruled it out.

“I am just not comfortable doing a virtual platform,” said Boggs, who is welcoming visitors into his home-based “Santa’s Southern Outpost.” “As soon as a child walks into the room to meet with me, it’s showtime. I’m ready to engage that child and do as much as I can to get them into the Christmas spirit. I don’t see that happening virtually, at least not to the same level.” Boggs says they take such precautions as temperature checks and frequent sanitizing of surfaces.

Nonetheless, Boggs suspects he’ll try the high-tech ho-ho-ho-ing route at some point before Christmas.

Not so with “Santa Glenn” Johnson of Woodstock, who told the AJC he feared that such things as a tenuous internet connection at his home might leave a disappointed child staring at a blank screen. He’s canceled all his bookings and is sitting 2020 out.

Taylor, he of the crinkly eyes and spectacular snow-white beard, sees it differently.

“My guess is whoever said (online visits don’t measure up) hasn’t done many. My experience has been the complete opposite of that,” he said. Taylor has gone 100% virtual for this 2020 holiday season as a safety measure.

Online users like Taylor say any perceived difficulty of establishing rapport via video is far outweighed by the benefits.For example, the online visits lend themselves to longer chats, as opposed to the two-minutes-on-the-lap-and-then-NEXT format of traditional Santa interactions at places like malls and sporting-goods stores.

The virtual sessions are being scheduled anywhere from five to 15 minutes in length — enough time for St. Nick to find out more about kids’ lives and concerns. What was their biggest accomplishment of the year? What are their hopes and dreams?

“Santa Ed” Taylor of Medford, Oregon, uses a computer platform developed by a metro Atlanta couple to hold online visits with children across the country.

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The expanded format also gives Santa and his guests time to sing a Christmas song or engage in other byplay. And they make holiday cheer possible for quarantined youngsters.

There’s also more time for the hard questions from kids needing reassurance, things like ‘Why did my Daddy die?’ or ‘Can you bring my cat back?’” says Joe Pridgen, a Santa pro of decades who styles himself the “Sugar Hill Santa.”

Or children wondering if Santa will slide down their chimney at all this year with virus cases skyrocketing.

Pridgen is working with professional Santa photographer Larry Hersberger and Ela Bednarek of Odessa, Florida, the co-founders of “How to Save Christmas,” a virtual Santa business born just this year out of concern for stressed-out kids, not to mention Santas facing a long holiday season with reduced income.

As with JingleRing, they’ve worked for months to put software and infrastructure into place. They’ve also hired 100 “Miracle Santas” to helm visits, with a focus on hospitals. The pair has pushed the technology envelope as well, with the development of new-generation artificial intelligence that gives parents a truly authentic pictorial rendering of their kids together with the jolly elf.

Dugan says such hospital rounds have been heart-rending sometimes but do fulfill an actual oath he and other members of a Santa group have taken to spread happiness and love and bring fantasies to life in the tradition of the Christmas spirit.

Derek Dugan of Buford, known as “Santa Derek," helped other Santas this year with setting up home studios for virtual visits with children. Dugan's schedule this year includes a mix of in-person and online Santa appearances.


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“Over the years I have seen a number of children presented to me in wheelchairs for their last Christmas. But the positive outlook is they got to see Santa and tell their wishes. And I have had situations where parents have come back later and told me that their children passed but it was their happiest moment to see Santa one last time,” said Dugan.

“The “Save Christmas” co-founders say with such a need in mind, they’re sponsoring 500 Angel Zoom Santa calls to sick youngsters to the tune of $70,000. They’re partnering with the Make-A-Wish foundation on the project. The calls cost $137 and include a personalized letter from Santa and a bell from his sleigh. They’re asking corporate and private donors to help fund the project.

Some of the incipient virtual Santas — ranging from those who had done a few online visits to others who had done none at the beginning of the month— say gearing up has been a challenge. How to interact with the kids for a longer period of time? How to draw them into the fantasy when they can’t sit on your lap and tug on your beard? Some also admit to being an “a bit of a technophobe” as Boggs put it, not having grown up in today’s digital space.

But some aspects haven’t changed appreciably since the days of “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

Pridgen, who has taught classes at the Northern Lights Santa Academy in Atlanta, says whether new or old-school what’s called for is a fully-fleshed out character portrayal, augmented by the need for improv skills. He’s helmed a course on how to answer questions.

“A youngster will ask me what their name is. And I’ll tell them that at the North Pole, their name is Alpha. Then I’ll say ‘what’s your name here?’ Or a parent will say, ‘where’s that new car you promised me last year.” explained Pridgen.

Whether in person or online, Santa still delivers the magic of the holidays.