How Santas Are Coping With the Pandemic

George Dehmer mailed away for his first Santa beard in 1951. “It was $21! I’ll never forget,” he says. “I only earned a dollar an hour working—making tape and sandpaper for 3M—so that was half a week’s wages.” 

Santa George was living with his parents at the time, and his mom sewed his first Santa suit, using corduroy she dyed red. The Dehmers lived on St. Paul’s East Side, near Hazel Park. He knocked on doors all around East 7th Street and White Bear Avenue and asked neighbors he knew: “Do you want to see Santa this year?” Soon enough, Santa George, born in 1931, had a regular route. “I’d stay 15–20 minutes at each home and say, ‘Pay me what you want.’ Some gave me a dollar, some two or three dollars. I thought this was a good deal!” 

Santas, by the way, go by Santa paired with a first name or nickname. The Twin Cities is home to about a dozen Santa Steves and Santa Mikes, a Santa Spoons and Santa Doc, and plenty more. I suspect Santa George is our longest serving. Questions regarding Santa loom large this year: What are they going to do? What are any of us going to do? How do they feel about it? How do we? I called up a handful to ask. 

The first and most important thing you need to know: Being Santa is very much a labor of love. “It’s the best job I ever had in my life,” explains Dehmer, who also had a 40-year career at 3M. “I just enjoyed it so much; it’s thrilling. When you go into a home, you’re on top of the world. I’m an actor, an entertainer. Soon as I go in, I’m into my routine.” Dehmer would sing, dance, and make coins disappear in his hand and emerge from a child’s ear. “Those years that a child believes in Santa Claus, those are the best years. They’re so trusting, and I really did everything I could to instill the goodness of life into children.” 

However, this year, for the first time since the Truman administration, George Dehmer will not be putting on one of his several Santa suits. (Though he’ll still have the Santa beard—it’s the real deal and part of his year-round look.) As one Santa booking agent put it: Santa Claus is an older gentleman with comorbidities, and so he may need to stay home this year. 

For the purposes of this story, let’s assume all the Santas in Minnesota have one heart and it’s broken, even though some of them will not, in fact, be staying home. 

For instance, the Santas at The Santa Experience at the Mall of America are going in—but they’re staying behind a giant plexiglass window. “We’re calling it a no-contact Santa visit, designed to meet COVID requirements,” explains Lando Luther, co-owner of The Santa Experience, where photo packages start at $30. “It’s like a log-cabin set with Santa fully enclosed, and kids will be able to walk up on the deck of his cabin and take photos. At no point were we comfortable doing nothing, but we also knew there couldn’t be kids running up to hug and kiss Santa.” 

The Santa Experience will also offer virtual Santa experiences, with a Santa in his set, kids in their homes, and grandparents who may be in nursing homes or on their decks in Florida all patched in to one virtual event. “An elf greets you, we record it all, and we’ll do some postproduction and turn it into your 2020 Santa home movie with animation and graphics,” explains Luther. “We’re going full steam ahead, bringing positivity, bringing smiles—it’s really addicting to be part of that positivity, to see what you can bring to someone’s day. It’s very infectious.” Hearing himself use that word, Luther suddenly laughs nervously. 

Infectious! The key question that comes up again and again. What’s the best thing for a Santa to do, protect Christmas or protect themselves?

“As a Black Santa I can do what I want,” says Santa Reg Wright, who was recruited to the elite group of North Star Santas in 2018 from the pews of St. Paul’s landmark African American church, Shiloh Missionary Baptist. “So, this year, I’m staying home except for maybe one event. I’m talking to my wife about that one still. She says, ‘I didn’t marry you to bury you. It’s too risky.’” On the other hand: “I get a lot out of being a Santa. I get fed a spiritual food—manna. It sustains me. For Black kids especially, and the parents of Black children even more, actually, it’s important to see yourself in someone you deify and look up to.” 

What if Santa Reg staying home actually leads to social unrest? This is on Santa Reg’s mind. “If all we see is cisgender white males running everything, it brings out anger and vitriol. I always want to say: Just give me one day when we ain’t calling each other names, when you ain’t got no protest sign and I ain’t got no sign. We just come together and recognize you’re human, I’m human. We all have this wisdom—you got it, I got it—how do we express it without getting our ego in the way?” 

Tapping into his wisdom and going out into the community as Santa Claus had been one of Santa Reg’s answers—until now. “I keep thinking, maybe there’s some way to wrap me up in Saran Wrap, pull me around in a cart—that box with the claw at carnivals? We don’t know when the end of this comes—don’t I have to bring the people some joy?” he asks. “This country hasn’t experienced anything like this for a hundred years, since the Spanish flu. And for a country that’s self-centered me, narcissistic me, nothin’ counts but me, I’ll kill myself not wearing a mask to preserve my so-called rights and take you with me—it’s more important than ever to talk about Jesus Christ, about empathy, about love, and about Santa too.” 

This question of the greater good weighs heavy on all the Santas I spoke with. What if this was any individual child’s last something? Last Christmas before, as one charmingly put it, the Golden Scepter of Knowledge about Santa is passed their way? Last Christmas with an ill relative? Last Christmas before a sibling moves out? 

Mark and Lori Hurley have been Santa and Mrs. Claus since 1995, through their company A Touch of Magic Entertainment. They have also raised three children together, and their youngest spent three and a half years fighting cancer. “We were all a mask-wearing, glove-wearing family long before COVID,” explains Lori. “Would we have skipped Santa at one of those Christmases? We didn’t.” Lori wonders, If you have a Christmas with gifts but without Santa, what message does that send? “When you look back, you remember the people, the memories, the traditions—never the gifts.” 

When their family was going through Christmases with cancer, Mark was always Santa. “When our son was sick, he couldn’t do a lot of things we normally do at Christmas, so we instilled in our kids that the important part is being together to celebrate our traditions and being grateful for what we have,” he recalls. “When we look back on those difficult years now, wearing masks and gloves, so worried an infection could kill him, those were special years, and they bring up big emotions, a lot of tenderness.” 

Lori has a lot of ideas about “best practices” for face-to-face Santa visits this year, even if the faces are socially distant. But they know a lot of people won’t want that, so they also offer live video chats ($49 for up to 15 minutes) and custom-made all-family videos from Santa himself, based on a questionnaire you fill out—just in case you’d like to add that special encouraging word for your child about continuing to clean the bedroom they rarely leave and practice for the spelling bee that might get cancelled. 

“The most important thing is that everyone knows in this COVID year that Santa’s real,” insists Lori. “He is real and alive in the spirit of acts of kindness to strangers.” 

So keep an eye out for the real Santa! Actually, maybe keep an eye out for the real Santa George Dehmer.

“This December is going to be rough,” sighed Santa George, summoning the mood of the nation. “I’m thinking: I go to the Mall of America. I launch my scooter, I dress in a black leather jacket, I don’t have a red hat on or anything. I drive around the mall and watch the other Santas perform.” Santa George may be having his first Christmas without a red suit since 1951, but he can’t actually stay home. He rushes to clarify something that hadn’t occurred to me. I’m not to worry that kids will see him and think he’s Santa. He won’t violate the secret Santa code, which is: “Never let children see two Santas at the same time.” 

Too late! I already see multiple Santas, and you can too, right in your mind and heart. There’s one in black leather on a scooter, and another in a full red suit at a cabin behind plexiglass. Then there are Santa Mark and Santa Reg. And don’t forget the dozens of other Santas having the same unique and peculiar and challenging year that all of us are having. 

When we look back on Christmas 2020, will we remember all these Santas, trying to protect Christmas and all of us with such care? 

We should. For Santa might indeed be more real than ever this difficult year, as folks both inside and outside the suit grapple with how much Santa means to us, how much we took sitting right on Santa’s lap for granted, and how we can still have Santa Claus this year, despite everything. 

This article originally appeared in the December issue.