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CapFed Best News: With close contact impossible, some Santas pivot to keep Christmas tradition alive

Rafael Garcia
rgarcia2@gannett.com

“Santa” Ken Sutton waited patiently on his painted-red rocking chair in Karey Brown’s living room on Tuesday, thinking ahead to how he would speak with hundreds of children over the coming hours.

Brown, a real estate agent with the eXp Realty Preferred Advisors team, has for years paid for Sutton to visit with children in the area and take photos with them, as a donation to the community. This year, though, in-person visits are practically impossible, so Brown decided to host Sutton in her Christmas-decorated living room for virtual visits with over 200 children over two days of Zoom sessions that she had arranged with parents.

All Sutton had to do was bring the charm.

As the pandemic threatens to suspend or cancel many holiday traditions, Santas across the state are adapting to keep the joy of Christmas going in the hearts of children, even as some Santas — who are more likely to be older men at higher risk for COVID-19 complications — choose to hang up their boots and forgo any visits with children this year.

“I would normally go to schools and see hundreds of kids in a single afternoon,” Sutton said. Additionally, Sutton has been the on-call Santa for Topeka-area Santa stores in years past. “Can’t do that this year, but this is the next best thing.”

Sutton, 70, is no stranger to donning the red jacket and hat. Ever since he was a teenager, he would play the jolly Christmas icon at family functions. It was about 25 years ago that he got his start as a professional Santa when a coworker at Hallmark asked him to play Santa, and he was soon invited to do the same at the company’s other Kansas locations. He has since grown out a fluffy white beard and tries to wear at least one red item every day, and in living the “Santa lifestyle” year-round, he joked that his motto is “have chair, will travel.”

A love for children has driven his lifestyle, and it is that love that pushed Sutton to press on with Santa visits this year, albeit with a few changes. For one, Sutton checks his own temperature daily, sometimes twice, and he works with photographers — who are his biggest clients — to make sure their photo subjects are also screened for COVID-19 symptoms and fevers.

Beyond Tuesday and Wednesday’s Zoom sessions, Sutton has also visited with children from behind plexiglass, and he has done limited in-person visits in which children whisper their Christmas wishes to him from a distance then briefly sit on his lap for a quick photo.

“I just felt like the kids needed some normality in their lives, and if God is with me, I’ll be fine,” he said.

Still, it is a risk he recognized not everyone can take. Sutton, friends with several other members of the Topeka Santa scene, said he knew of quite a few other Santas who just didn’t want to risk becoming infected or infecting others. Mike Shinkle — a local pastor, director of food services at Topeka Rescue Mission and sidewalk Santa for the past five years — died in late November of COVID-19.

In any case, Sutton said, parents and photographers have been excellent about canceling when necessary because of positive case results or quarantines. Since his Santa season began in mid-October, Sutton estimated he had visited in some form with 4,000 to 5,000 children.

“People don’t want to spread this thing, and they especially don’t want to spread it to me, because they know I have access to all of these kids,” he said.

Santa of the times

On the other side of the state, Vernon Hurd of Colby chose to skip in-person visits this year after having played Santa for the past six years.

As far as he knows, Hurd said, he was the only at least semi-professional Santa in northwest Kansas, but other community members have stepped up to help volunteer with Santa City — an annual event held by the Colby Convention and Visitors Bureau in a decked-out winter wonderland. This year, the event will be done on a drive-thru basis, and Hurd said families from several counties over typically come for Santa and the scenery.

Since switching to virtual visits only, Hurd said business has definitely slowed. Speaking virtually with children is also a bit more difficult for him, he said, since young children can occasionally be apprehensive of Santa even when meeting him in person.

“Especially when you’re working with the younger ones who might be shy of Santa Claus, it takes a warmup period,” Hurd said. “Santa has to be patient, and there’s the ability for them to get comfortable with you. They look at your beard, or your facial expressions, and things like that. To do that virtually, they’re just looking at a screen, so there’s not that comfort level with the younger kids, so you lose the connection.”

But as much as Hurd misses the children, there is another aspect of being Santa that he said he will miss even more. In years past, Hurd has made visits to the local nursing home — an impossibility this year as nursing homes across the country lockdown and clamp down on visitors.

“The patients who have Alzheimer’s and things like that, interacting with them and seeing how their faces light up just like the little ones — I’m going to miss that the most,” he said. “The joy of bringing Santa to them, I’m truly going to miss that.”

Malls and stores across the state have adapted to host Santa in their buildings, and some are now requiring reservations to meet with Santa or creating social distancing with plexiglass dividers.

At Botanica, a community garden in Wichita, people who walk through the garden’s Illuminations light display will still have the chance to see Santa, although Santa will be behind glass doors. While children won’t be able to tell Santa what they want for Christmas directly, they will be able to leave him a letter with their wish lists.

“We knew we’d figure out a way to have Santa in some capacity,” Kathy Spillman said. “He’ll be behind glass doors, following CDC guidelines so kids can’t get close to him. But we wanted to at least have Santa waving and visible for our guests, and we knew we’d figure out a way to have Santa.”

In Salina, the Georgetown Santas — a group of neighbors dressed as Santa who stand in their driveways hand out candy and popcorn to passersby — in October made the decision to cancel their annual drive-by Christmas event.

But Justin Martin, a popcorn popper and son of one of the neighborhood Santas, said the group is encouraging children to keep their eyes out for Santa elsewhere.

“Santa is doing his part to keep everyone safe by staying away and doing an extra job of being stealthy this year,” he said.

Martin joked that by not having the event this year, some kids might not be as confused to see 10 Santas standing on the same street.

“He’s doing his part to make sure everyone is safe and trying to get those presents delivered on Christmas,” Martin said.

For Hurd in Salina, he said he has seen children become more reserved this year.

“I don’t know how to characterize it, but I think a lot of it has to go back to the diminished amount of interaction they’re getting outside of their immediate families,” Hurd said. “The school experience is different for them, and it’s harder for them to understand why thing like social distancing are going on or why they’re important.”

Back in Topeka, Sutton readied himself for four hours straight of playing Santa, and when the first girl showed up on his laptop screen, Sutton ran through his usual checklist of asking them what they wanted for Christmas (while making no promises) and explaining how they could get on his good list.

This year, though, he has added an item, and that is pleading with children to be “extra good” for their teachers, as Sutton said they are going through a tough time this year.

Children ask him for a variety of toys, some of which Sutton has no clue about, but he plays along. One boy last week asked him for COVID-19 to be over.

“I told him, ‘I’ve been praying for that too, buddy,’ ” Sutton said.