Updated at 9:14 p.m. ET on December 29, 2020
I got a call on a Wednesday morning from a number with a Long Island area code. Long Island? I picked up, because why not.
“Emma? This is Santa speaking.”
My caller, it turned out, was not just Santa but the National Santa™, a.k.a. Santa Tim Connaghan, the Big Daddy of American Saint Nicks. Santa Tim’s website features pictures of him posing with Giada De Laurentiis, Dr. Phil, and Jewel; he’s the guy Melania Trump called for help at a Toys for Tots event. In normal years, he runs a roving school for Santas and Mmes. Claus and supplies a workforce of bearded men to malls and corporate events around the country. But lately Santa Tim—his preferred honorific—has been making a lot of calls. It’s hard to socially distance from small children determined to climb on Santa’s lap, and he’s closing in on 73. “I live on Social Security and the little bit of extra money I get from teaching Santa school, and then the money I get here at the holidays,” he told me. “This year, I’ve stepped back from doing that, because I have a health condition, and another family member has a health condition. We don’t want to jeopardize ourselves.” He may ride a flying sleigh and fit down a chimney. But even Santa can’t avoid Zoom.
America’s Santas have been planning for a Christmas crisis since June. The Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas replaced the summer version of its quarterly newsletter, “Just Be Claus!,” with a special COVID-19 edition about the 2020 holiday season, sourced with contributions from “the titans of the Santa World,” according to Santa Ric Erwin, the group’s chairman. (Erwin reveres Santa Tim, whom he calls Saint Tim. “I don’t think we need that,” said Santa Tim.*) In August, Santa Ric testified before a CDC advisory committee, reminding them that “if there was any hope to end the worst year EVER on the best note possible, it would lie in Christmas—which would be more important to the American psyche than ever before,” he recalled in an email. His presentation seemed to help the stressed-out scientists, at least: “Santas in America, we want to thank you for your comments and really enjoyed hearing from you,” said José Romero, the group’s chair. “I really did believe in you all my life.”