After a brush with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, professional Santa Clauses are just trying to get through this holiday season safely.
By Sandra E. Garcia and Sapna Maheshwari
Ric Erwin is one of thousands of men for whom Santa Claus is both a sacred idea and a seasonal occupation. Earlier this year, he was looking forward to donning his red velvet suit and hat this December, just as he has each winter for the last decade.
But the pandemic has thrown a wrench in the usual Christmas shows and shopping mall photo ops. And Mr. Erwin, 62, who is the chairman of the board of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas — a national association for men who grow and maintain their own beards to play Santa Claus at holiday events — has found himself advocating for 500 professionals to safely support their work while virus cases are surging.
In September, Mr. Erwin, who lives in Hemet, Calif., testified virtually before the Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. He noted that the production and distribution of an H1N1 vaccine in 2009 allowed Santa Claus performers to save Christmas that year. He hoped the C.D.C. could similarly expedite a vaccine in time for this holiday season.
After his testimony, Mr. Erwin received several phone calls, voicemails and emails from Michael R. Caputo, the assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, who hoped to broker a deal with the Santas. Mr. Erwin recalled Mr. Caputo telling him that the White House was interested in having Santas participate in a 35-city rollout campaign for Operation Warp Speed, the federal effort to develop a coronavirus vaccine. In exchange, he promised the Santas access to a vaccine by mid-October.
“That sounded like a great deal to us,” Mr. Erwin said. “Within 24 hours we had over 100 volunteers. The response was overwhelming.”
Mr. Caputo told Mr. Erwin he couldn’t wait to tell President Trump that the Santas were onboard with the plan. Then, Mr. Erwin said, Mr. Caputo, the C.D.C. and the H.H.S. ghosted him.
Mr. Erwin realized Mr. Caputo was never going to call him back when The Wall Street Journal published an article in late October stating that the campaign, which was meant to include not only Santa players but also celebrities, had been scrapped. (In a statement to The New York Times, an H.H.S. spokeswoman reiterated: “This collaboration will not be happening.”)
“We saw the handwriting on the wall and we knew there was not going to be a collaboration at that point, so if we were going to save Christmas this year it was just going to be the Clauses,” Mr. Erwin said.
In addition to stoking some false hope, his negotiations with the federal government drew attention to the myriad societies Santa Claus performers belong to today (though the word “performers” is scorned by those who take a method approach to the role). There are regional groups (like the Lone Star Santas and the New England Santa Society), as well as national and international ones.
For the most part, these organizations try to stay out of politics, activism and other kinds of campaigning. So some Santas were annoyed.
“First of all, Santa lives in the North Pole — he doesn’t live in the United States,” said Stephen Arnold, 70, a Memphis resident and president of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas (I.B.R.B.S.), a trade group with more than 2,000 members. “He might have an interest in seeing that the United States is a calm and safe place for him to visit and deliver Christmas presents, but as a Santa Claus, you shouldn’t have a political posture.”
Mr. Arnold added that his understanding was that only four or five people would end up eligible for an early shot of the vaccine according to the offer Mr. Caputo made to Mr. Erwin.
To be fair, Mr. Arnold and Mr. Erwin have some history. The Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas (F.O.R.B.S.) emerged out of the dissolution more than a decade ago of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas (A.O.R.B.S.), which was wrapped in scandal at the time. (“If you Google ‘Santa Wars,’ you’ll find articles on it,” Mr. Arnold said.) Today, F.O.R.B.S. is much smaller than I.B.R.B.S., which also includes Mrs. Clauses, and there are members of each group who will not forget the Santa tension of years past.
Personal matters aside, Mr. Arnold said his resistance to take part in the government campaign revolved largely around a desire to remain apolitical.
“Most of our members were reluctant to consider being first in line because they felt that the whole thing on vaccines was being politically manipulated,” he said. “We work very hard on not being political. We do not allow any political posts or anything on our Facebook group pages.”
“If somebody posts something that’s even slightly interpreted as a political statement, it’s gone instantly,” he continued. “It’s just deleted.”
Should a member like to make a statement out-of-character, that’s fine, Mr. Arnold said. “We encourage all of our Santas who want to make political posts to create a separate page where they don’t wear any red, and don’t indicate they’re Santa Claus or have Santa in their names,” he said.
At this point, according to C.D.C. recommendations, Santa players shouldn’t expect to be vaccinated before Christmas. So, what does that mean for this holiday season?
“Generally speaking, within the Santa community, we are being as cautious as possible,” Mr. Arnold said. “There’s a small contingency of people who have laughed it off and said ‘I’m going to go on normally, I won’t be performing with a mask.’” Most members of Santa organizations, however, are considered high-risk coronavirus candidates: They are retirees in their 70s and 80s and many have underlying health conditions, Mr. Erwin said.
“There isn’t a group of people that are more compromised than the Christmas Committee,” Mr. Arnold said. “A lot of us are old and have diabetes. Most of us have a heart problem, most of us are obese. We check every box.”
While many Santa-related innovations have come out of 2020 — holiday-themed masks, plexiglass and acrylic walls that can be made to look invisible in photos, video calls, drive-through greetings — Mr. Erwin is most enticed by the idea of placing Santa in a vinyl dome.
The dome provides physical separation, but it can also be explained with a clever story for the children to understand, Mr. Erwin said.
“If parents don’t want to explain virus transmission, they can say Santa got trapped in a snow globe by an elf magician and you have to come visit him at the globe,” he said.
But Mr. Erwin won’t be scheduling any in-person visits this year. His father-in-law suffered a stroke in April and was hospitalized for 30 days before he died; none of his family members were able to visit because of the pandemic. Mr. Erwin told his wife and his mother-in-law, who makes Santa costumes and goes by Mother Claus, that he would not take any chances with the virus.
“I don’t even care about giving up my season,” Mr. Erwin said. “I’m thinking about the 150,000 plus people that did not have to die.” He blames the rising toll on the current administration and plans to deliver fitting gifts to its members this Christmas.
“As a Santa, I am neutral and love everybody, but as a citizen I have to say something,” Mr. Erwin said, adding that he would not be giving politicians coal. “They are getting dryer lint, at best.”
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