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Six feet away, ‘you can still hear their wishes’: How Santas are spreading holiday cheer this COVID-19 Christmas

Donning the big red suit now comes not only with logistical challenges but also with heavy, mixed emotions due to the coronavirus pandemic.

At Triple Dog Dare Ya Christmas Tree Farm in Franklinville, N.J., photographer Colleen Kuzniasz takes pictues of (from left) Keegan, Karlee, and Karson Whelan as Santa Kringle (Frank Naimoli) holds his distance behind them.
At Triple Dog Dare Ya Christmas Tree Farm in Franklinville, N.J., photographer Colleen Kuzniasz takes pictues of (from left) Keegan, Karlee, and Karson Whelan as Santa Kringle (Frank Naimoli) holds his distance behind them.Read moreCURT HUDSON

In normal times, Delaware County’s “Santa Kringle” is honored each holiday season when families welcome him into their Christmas celebrations. “One of the biggest honors,” he said, is when parents hand him a newborn for the child’s first Santa photo, one that “will be around far longer than I am.”

But due to the coronavirus pandemic, Kringle — who also goes by Frank Naimoli — has had to change the way he interacts with the wide-eyed children who now visit him at outdoor, socially distanced photo shoots.

“They can’t sit on my lap. I can’t hold them,” he said. “But you can still hear their wishes. That’s the most important part.”

Some of those wishes are different this year: Children have asked Santa to help relatives who are sick with the virus, he said, and one even requested that elves get to work on a vaccine up at the North Pole.

Naimoli, 51, of Glenolden, still feels blessed to be able to bring joy to children, especially during this difficult time. But like countless Santas across the country and the region, donning the big red suit now comes not only with logistical challenges — how do you cheerfully deflect when a kid runs up and hugs you out of the blue? — but also with heavy, mixed emotions.

He said he worries about the health of his “brothers in red,” who are usually — by nature of the Santa trade — older and overweight, making them more susceptible to complications of the coronavirus. Santas say they feel for children and parents who have endured especially challenging years, and experience a bittersweet longing for hugs and wishes whispered in ears and laughs shared with kids from closer than six feet. They are concerned, too, about their own livelihoods, with the most lucrative holiday parties and home visits canceled due to the pandemic.

Yet, despite worries and rapidly raising coronavirus case counts and hospitalizations, Santas remain hard at work. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease specialist, weighed in on that work last month, assuring children that Santa has “innate immunity” to the virus and won’t spread any infections when he travels from house to house on Christmas Eve.

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Until then, though, local Santas are taking precautions. At area malls, guests who want pictures with Santa have to adjust to new rules.

At the King of Prussia Mall, guests of Santa are encouraged to make reservations, instead of waiting in long lines that in years past often wrapped around the mall’s Christmas display. Santa, his helpers, and his visitors are masked up, according to the mall, and photo shoots are done in compliance with social distancing.

At the Cherry Hill, Moorestown, Springfield, Willow Grove Park, Exton Square, and Plymouth Meeting malls, as well as the Fashion District in Center City starting Friday, Plexiglas dividers separate Santa from his visitors, said a spokesperson for PREIT, the company that owns the complexes. Santa and his guests may remove their masks for photos.

People who aren’t comfortable visiting Santa at the mall can pay for a five minute, one-on-one Zoom call, the spokesperson said, and keep a recording of the interaction as a keepsake from Christmas 2020.

Large-scale Santa traditions have been altered, too.

» READ MORE: When to mail packages so they will arrive in time for the holidays

“America’s Favorite Santa” — who by day is Dutch Schrap, 46, of Douglassville, Berks County — has graced the streets of Philadelphia in the 6ABC Thanksgiving Day parade for the last five years.

This year, however, his appearance in the virtual celebration was taped. In the clip, Schrap is seated next to Mrs. Claus at the bottom of the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps.

“Well, this is certainly a different kind of year,” he said into the camera in his warm, booming Santa voice. ”But one thing that remains the same is we are right here together in Philadelphia to usher in the festive holiday season.”

The son of another real bearded Santa, with whom he shares a name, Schrap said he was a teenager when he first put on the suit. Since then, his falls and winters have been booked with home visits, photo shoots, tree-lighting celebrations, office Christmas parties, and family gatherings.

Since the coronavirus pandemic arrived, long before the holiday season, he said he proactively canceled nearly 100 scheduled home visits.

He has opted instead for more virtual visits via FaceTime and Zoom, he added, and has been active on Cameo, an online platform where users can pay for personalized video messages from celebrities and other high-profile people.

Like Santa Kringle, Schrap said his photo shoots have all been moved outside to Christmas tree farms and other festive places.

No matter the location, he’s grateful he can still hear children’s wishes. In his experience, children seem to be handling the pandemic-induced “new normal” better than adults, including himself, and are putting a positive spin on everything from virtual school to scaled-back holiday celebrations.

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To grinches who are quick to say public health measures have canceled Christmas, Schrap said he wishes they could see children’s joy through his eyes.

“The spirit of Christmas, or the spirit of Santa, is alive and well,” he said. “We just shifted a little and adapted to the current times.”