ST. LOUIS — There he was — Santa Claus, in the flesh.
The little boy at St. Louis Union Station was so excited, he rushed to give Santa a hug.
Then Saint Nick ran away.
"I hate to do that, but you just gotta be safe," said Steve Pegram, the man inside the Santa suit. Pegram chatted with the boy later, albeit from a distance of six feet. “It’s totally different,” he said of his work in 2020.
Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, Santas are facing a Christmas unlike any other. Santa is no longer that scary stranger who wants you to sit on his lap — he’s probably more scared of you and your virus-carrying potential than you are of him. Yet in an upside-down holiday season, St. Louis’ Santas are finding creative ways to spread Christmas cheer.
Keeping up appearances
Yes, Virginia, you can still meet Santa Claus. Plenty of malls and entertainment venues are hosting him — with precautions.
“Every place I go, there will be either a six-foot distance or a plexiglass barrier,” said Pegram, 55. In addition to doing Union Station’s Polar Express, Pegram is working Eckert’s Belleville Country Store and Farms. There, he occupies a human-size “Santa bubble.”
Eckert’s bought the bubble, which resembles a snow globe, on Amazon for $1,000. The Missouri Botanical Garden has one, too. Pegram is still able to speak with kids through the plastic, he said.
“I let ’em know that when they open their presents this year, if it’s not exactly what they wanted, just to be thankful for what they get,” he said.
The bubble, which Pegram learned about at his annual Santa training in Michigan, is just one of many innovations sweeping the Kris Kringle industry. To keep Santa Claus coming to town, many malls have put up physical barriers and mask requirements.
“At this point face masks aren’t new to families or to kids, but hopefully by seeing Santa, the holiday magic can still be a part of their season,” said Kevin Nolan, 45.
Nolan, aka “Cocoa Santa,” is the region’s preeminent Black Santa Claus. He appears at the St. Louis Galleria every Sunday, where he wears a face shield and meets with children across a large table.
Buddy Fisher, a 30-year veteran of the red suit, is still doing professional photo shoots. Many studios allow kids to take off their masks and get close to Santa. Given their rigorous cleaning procedures, Fisher, 63, said he isn’t worried about COVID-19.
“I tend to be a glass-half-full kind of guy,” he said. “Less than 5% of the population has tested positive. So looking at that statistic, I figure I’ve actually got a pretty darn good chance of not getting it.”
Meanwhile, Nolan is turning down several gig requests a week that raise safety concerns. To spread joy but not germs, he bought a red Jeep, decorated it with Christmas lights and began booking distanced appearances.
“I was due for a new vehicle anyways, so I figured I would just multipurpose it,” he said. “I can remove my Jeep top, so that I can stand up and talk to the kids or the crowd.”
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