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What do Santas do when COVID-19 makes this a socially distanced season?

Usually during the Christmas season, Jim Costello of Waterford is merrily sitting in as Santa Claus at Olde Mistick Village and taking a non-sleigh ride during the annual Motorcycle Gift Run form the Waterford Speedbowl to Camp Harkness in Waterford.

Last year in mid-December, Dan Kelley of Pawcatuck popped up at Mariah Carey’s Christmas concert at Mohegan Sun. As she sang “Here Comes Santa Claus,” he strode on stage dressed in a traditional red suit, sporting a full beard and carrying a bag full of presents.

This year, Costello, Kelley and other people who have spent Decembers embodying the spirit of Ol’ St. Nick are having to adjust the way they spread cheer to the realities of a COVID-19 world.

Since social distancing is a necessity these days, most venues that usually host holiday events where youngsters sit on Santa Claus’s lap have canceled festivities or have transformed them into something very different.

The Crystal Mall in Waterford, for instance, is offering the “Santa Photo Experience” from now through Dec. 24. The mall notes that “For everyone’s safety this will be a socially-distanced experience for our guests.” Santa will be wearing a mask, as should his guests.

Some businesses, like the national chain Cabela’s, are having children on one side of an acrylic barrier (which Cabela’s is dubbing The Magic Santa Shield) and Santa on the other. “Santa’s Sanitization Squad” at Cabela’s cleans and sanitizes all surfaces between each visit.

Reinventing a holiday tradition

Over at The Essex Steam Train & Riverboat in Essex, the North Pole Express usually attracts nearly 90,000 people and tickets usually sell out within days of going on sale, said director of communications Maureen Quintin. In that long-running annual event, Santa and Mrs. Claus walk through the train and visit with every child. Interacting like that during a pandemic, of course, is taboo, so the folks at Essex Steam Train brainstormed for an alternative.

“We are known for Christmas,” Quintin said. “We are known as being one of the top Christmas experiences in the state. How could we not provide something?”

That something is Reindeer on the Rails. Families take a one-hour ride on the train, which will accommodate less than half the number of people per train car this year. Children will nosh on a continental breakfast, write a letter to Santa, create a reindeer ornament, don reindeer antlers, and listen to holiday music. At one point, they’ll look out the window and see people dressed in reindeer costumes, waving to them. When they return to the station, they’ll mail their letters in front of the “North Pole” post office.

They then will visit a socially distanced Santa, who will be by himself in an enclosed building. Families can see him inside his workshop, and they might talk to him from afar and get a socially distanced photo. They’ll see Mrs. Claus in her bake shop, as well.

The Santa cause

Kelley, meanwhile, is doing what many are: going the virtual route or being socially distanced. He’ll do virtual visits and, when Santa visits individuals’ houses, those will be socially distanced.

“I talked to a couple of Santas already, and they’re, like, ‘It’s not normal.’ It’s hard to interact with the kids, even though the kids are used to virtual school and everything,” he said. “... A couple of guys that have been at it for a few more years than I have are having issues with engaging the kids. You know, they don’t sit on your lap. You can read them a story, ‘The Night Before Christmas,’ but you have to do it (virtually). And kids can’t whisper in your ear.”

There is an upside to online festivities, though.

“It’s nice that everyone can join in on it. If you’re doing a virtual (visit) with one of the children or two of the children, Grandma down in Florida or out in Arizona or Uncle Billy someplace else, they can all join in on the meeting and get the experience themselves,” Kelley said.

He is relatively new to stepping into Santa’s boots, with 2019 being his first full year. He already has done some photo shoots this year, and they have been outside, with people taking off their masks when it’s time to snap the pictures.

“I will be doing some visits with people I’ve done in past. I’m telling them, 'Let’s do it outside, we’ll keep our distance,'” said Kelly, who put out the word that he is doing virtual visits through Facebook.

Sitting out the season

Costello isn’t doing any Santa appearances this year.

“I’m 73, have had a bypass and have diabetes, and I just don’t want to take the chance,” he said.

He’s not even doing the gatherings of 15 to 20 people he has in the past.

“Actually, one of them called the other night and wanted to know if we could just drive by the house,” he said, adding that he and his wife, Candy, who becomes Mrs. Claus, haven’t made a decision on that yet.

“I’m kind of having withdrawal because I enjoy it,” Costello said. “I’ve been doing this for 25, 30 years, and I have all the lists that the kids bring me, all this kind of stuff that I save. This is going to be a tough year for me.”

He recalled how, when he would arrive at Olde Mistick Village, it would take him anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour to walk from the parking lot near the coffee shop to the church “because everybody wants a picture.” (Olde Mistick Village, meanwhile, is focusing on its inaugural Holiday Lights Spectacular, with the village decorated by more than a half-million lights.)

Costello did participate in two extremely scaled-back versions of motorcycle gift runs this year, with about 10 bikes — and all the riders wearing masks — bringing checks and gift cards to Camp Harkness, and with some members of the Harley-Davidson owners group bringing money to WCTY for its food drive.

It’s the annual Camp Harkness ride that really has an impact on Costello. Camp Harkness is a state park dedicated for use by residents with disabilities, and he said, “When I started doing this down there, there were children that were, 3, 4 and 5 with developmental issues. Now they’re adults. That’s what I think of as Christmas, having had a cousin who was autistic, and I have a granddaughter who has Down’s. You know, I understand this. Some people do the run, but they don’t understand what it’s for. It’s kind of how I got started in this, 20-plus years ago.”

The children, of course, bring the joy to him as much as the other way around.

“I lost 80-some-odd pounds after the bypass surgery. We were camping in the middle of July. I have a large Santa Claus on the side of the trailer, and a kid brought me cookies because he thought I didn’t look fat enough,” Costello said with a laugh.

Kelley likewise fondly recalls a present; one tyke brought him a Matchbox car. “He said, ‘You always give everybody a gift, but I thought I’d bring you a gift,’” Kelley said.

Kelley has made appearances at venues including the Providence Marriott and a shop during the Stonington Holiday Stroll in the past. And, of course, there was that Mariah Carey concert gig, which came about after he saw a notice on a website where people are looking for a Santa.

“It was incredible. It was something who knows if it will ever happen again. That it happened during my first full year was amazing,” Kelley said.

While that was exciting, he said his favorite part of bringing the Santa spirit is “the joy of the whole season. There’s so much negativity in this world, and it’s such a positive experience. To see the kids smile or the family smile ... It’s just a positive feeling for myself that I get and that I can give to others.” 

k.dorsey@theday.com

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