Some went virtual, others were in bubbles, but in many cases there were no Santas at all.
COVID-19 dealt Santa Claus’s shopping mall helpers a blow last year, when the pandemic was in its second wave and many holiday traditions were cancelled. Some are making a comeback this year with safety precautions.
At White Oaks Mall in London, jolly greetings and children’s laughs echoed Monday through the ornamented corridors. Behind the big white beard to stand in for Santa was Anthony Blois, a fully vaccinated Londoner and father of six.
“It’s very exciting,” Blois said. “There are adults that will walk up and say, ‘Can I give you a hug? Can I have a picture?’
“I think we’ve been through a couple of tough years and people are saying, ‘You know what? Let’s do something happy. Let’s do something fun. Let’s do something silly.’ That’s where I come in.”
No stranger to the role, Blois has performed as Santa at events and parties for seven years. This year is his first at a shopping mall, however.
Santa visits at some area malls are edging closer to the traditional in-person experience this year, in which families can choose to have their kids sit with Santa or reman socially distanced, separated by plexiglass. The set is sanitized between each visit, about five minutes each, down from last year’s 10-minute sessions.
New this year at White Oaks, the booth operates daily instead of only on Fridays and weekends like last year.
With vaccinations now in full swing, unlike last year, and masking rules in place, organizers wanted to offer visitors enough time to enjoy the holiday spirit safely, said Saraya Barth, who owns and manages the photo booth.
“This year, people are a little more adapted to how things are,” she said, adding almost every day is fully booked.
“People are more comfortable seeing Santa (now),” she said.
Bookings are appointment-only, except for walk-ins during less busy hours.
The safety routine is the same at Westmount Shopping Centre in London and at the Elgin Centre mall in St. Thomas, said Barth, who also manages the booths that operate there on weekends.
At Masonville Place in London, daily Santa visits are reservation-only, according to the mall’s website. There are no plexiglass barriers, but those looking to snap a photo with the big man in red must remain a reindeer’s length away, six feet, a customer representative said.
At White Oaks, three-year-old Abbi beamed as she sat near Old Saint Nick for a picture.
Her parents were thrilled to keep a holiday tradition alive in an environment more normal than last year.
“We were just too nervous last year,” said Jenny Weeks, Abbi’s mother. “But now, with the vaccines out and all the mask mandates . . . it just feels safer.”
“Simple things like this are a treat,” said Alex Haight Haldane, the girl’s father.
It’s a bonus made possible at White Oaks by four different Santa stand-ins who volunteer their time during the holiday season.
The best part, for Blois, is interacting with families and kids.
“Last week, a little girl came, sat beside me and said, ‘Santa, can I talk to you?’” Blois said.
“I’d like a house for Christmas,” she told him.
“I said lovely, a dollhouse? Santa can maybe do that. Tell me more.”
“No Santa, a house,” the little girl said. “We don’t live in a house.”
“I said you know what, I can’t fix everything, I’m a toymaker. But I promise you this. I will pray for you (and) for your family . . . Every night, be sure to say your prayers, and something good will come of it.”
When the little girl left, she told Blois, “I believe in you.”
“That’s the stuff,” he said. “That’s why I’m here.”