Zooming through the snow: Santas are adjusting to Christmas online

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Whether we admit it not, most of us have worn pyjama bottoms or sweatpants on at least one Zoom call – and Santa Claus, it turns out, is no exception. For the last two years, 53-year-old Mitchell Scott has been a professional Santa offering home visits and grotto experiences to adults and kids alike. This year, things have gone digital. Since September, Scott has been doing two Zoom calls a day in his bespoke £2,000 Santa suit. “Sometimes you can cheat and you just put the top half on,” he laughs.
Scott’s career as Santa Claus began when he took his then four-year-old grandson to a grotty grotto. “He was the worst Santa I’ve ever seen,” he recalls, “His suit was literally see through, he stunk of alcohol, and he had these black plastic boot covers covering his shoes.” Scott – who already had a career in entertainment and was coincidentally in the process of growing his white goatee into a full beard – decided to do the job right. In a normal year, the Norfolk resident hosts an annual grotto at a local farm, does corporate gigs, and visits retirement homes and terminally ill children. But this is not a normal year.


No one knows exactly how many Santa Clauses there are in the UK (although one Facebook “forum for UK Santas, Mrs Clauses, and Elves to chat with others” has more than 300 members). Around this time of year, you normally see them popping up in department stores, shopping malls, and garden centres – but coronavirus has put things on pause. How are the UK’s Clauses coping with Covid-19, and how exactly are shopping centres ensuring that Santa stays socially distanced? Is the global transition to Zoom particularly tough on St Nick?
With three months Zooming already under his (black leather and gold reindeer buckled) belt, Scott has only experienced a couple of technical difficulties (one granny forgot to turn her speakers on). In early autumn, he joined a Facebook group for people who are excluded from the government’s coronavirus financial support measures and posted about his economic difficulties. “People were like, ‘No! No! I don’t believe it! Santa can’t be unemployed!” Scott says. After brainstorming, the group suggested Scott start doing video calls. Customers can choose from calls lasting between five and 15 minutes – prices start from £10. Parents can even answer a questionnaire about their child to heighten the personalised experience.
Over the course of one week in September, Scott transformed his home office with supplies he found in his loft. One wall now is now covered with Christmas pictures and ornaments, as well as electric lights that flicker like candles. Scott painted a chair with gold leaf “to look a bit grand” and hung some Christmas curtains around his window. “When I do a Zoom call, as far as the kids are concerned, they’re talking to Santa in the North Pole.”
But Scott is far from the only Santa offering these services. In October, actor James Bartlett launched Santascallingyou.co.uk, transforming the UK’s Mr and Mrs Clauses (and elves) into gig workers. Bartlett has a cast of fifty hand-selected festive actors who each choose how many Zoom calls they would like to do in a day. The vast majority of these Santas have previous experience in the role but needed a new outlet after shopping centres across the country abandoned their grottos (a spokesperson from Westfield says, “In light of the current national guidelines, unfortunately we will not be in a position to open our grottos at Westfield London or Westfield Stratford City as planned this year.”)


Bartlett says the response to Santa’s Calling You has been overwhelming and sees his business outlasting lockdowns and social distancing. “It’s a different experience – you don’t have to wait in the cold for your time to see Santa,” the 32-year-old says, noting that a child gets 8-10 minutes with Santa during a £24.99 call but many grottos have children in and out in a minute. “I think with the way that the world is and how technology’s going, this is an experience that is going to be popular in years and years to come.”
Each of Bartlett’s festive actors underwent a two-hour Zoom crash course – crucially, they needed to learn to change their usernames so it would always say that it was Santa Claus who was calling. Most of the actors already had their own costumes, and Bartlett was particular about ensuring beards were theatre standard (“They’re glued on, not pound shop ones”). Unlike Scott, the actors use virtual backgrounds instead of creating real sets.
But Bartlett’s business has unexpected competition: the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, launched Santa HQ in November, a video call service that allows kids to connect with Mr Claus. If you Google “Zoom Santa” you’ll be confronted by an abundance of options – volunteer organisation Bolton Lions Club have their own offering, as does Virgin Media and the photo-printing company Chatbooks.
The man behind Celebrity Santa – arguably the UK’s most well-connected Santa, who appears on This Morning annually and regularly visits celebrity homes – does not always approve of these new services. “I’ve seen on Facebook, it’s popping up, all these companies saying ‘Santa this, Santa that’ – you go to their website, they’re all stock images of Santa so you don’t know what Santa’s going to look like,” he says, arguing many companies are offering “Poundland Santa” (his own wig and beard cost over £2,500). “People are just doing it to make a quick buck… It’s an insult to children.”


Like his competitors, Celebrity Santa now offers live video calls and is also selling personalised pre-recorded videos. He is under 50 and notes that, sadly, many older professional Santas aren’t technically-minded enough to work this year and have had to take time off. He is currently in the process of recording 5,000 children’s names which will be slotted into a pre-recorded video. Parents can order a video online using a drop-down menu to select their child’s name. “At certain points where the names are mentioned, you don’t see Santa’s mouth, it all naturally fits the scene properly,” he explains. From December 1, Celebrity Santa will also do a whopping three Zoom calls an hour for 12 hours a day. “The thing is, you don’t want to let people down.”
Celebrity Santa has been in the role for ten years and is well-suited to offer insights into the differences between Zoom and IRL Santa meet-ups. “It is a bit of a downer because you can’t beat that one-to-one interaction with people,” he says, “If you meet somebody in person, it just adds a little bit more magic to it.” Scott says “the worst thing is the unknown”.
“When mum and dad are at a grotto visit or home visit, they tend to lead the child a little bit, whereas on a Zoom call they can say anything they like,” he explains. “I had one lad the other week saying, ‘I’ve had an upset tummy, I’ve had diarrhoea and everything’ and I can hear nanny and grandad go, ‘Shush! Santa doesn’t need to know that!”
Celebrity Santa also laments that “children spend a lot of time staring at screens anyway and it’s just a shame that they have to stare at screens to talk to Santa”. But some businesses are still offering real-life grottos. In America, the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas has argued that Clauses should be the first in line to get the coronavirus vaccine. Scott is still taking part in his annual grotto at a local farm but there are extra safety precautions: “They walk in one door and out another and they walk past four metres away from me and I’m behind a Perspex screen.” Scott is also offering home and garden visits but will only be doing one a day, will disinfect his car and suit before and after visits, will ask children to stay two metres away, and will wear a face shield (plus “Santa always wears gloves anyway”). Some shopping centres are employing similar measures – The Trafford Centre in Manchester will have its own socially-distanced Santa complete with regular hand sanitising.
For the UK’s professional Santas, then, this will be a season like no other – but they aren’t prepared to walk away from the children who look forward to meeting them. “I don’t think people realise what a huge responsibility being Santa is,” Celebrity Santa says. “I didn’t realise until I started doing it.”
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