AMES, Iowa – A line of children in puffy coats and colorful face masks waited on a sidewalk in Ames as the mid-December sun began to set.
Fifteen lit-up Christmas inflatables arranged around a suburban lawn – reindeer, elves, snowmen – illuminated their excited faces as they waited with their parents for an outdoor visit with Santa Claus.
“We aren’t really going to malls or anything this year,” Cason Clark explained, his two children in tow. “We had visited this last year. He’s a really good Santa.”
At that, the man himself, known locally as “Santa Ames,” walked past the family, bells on his leather boots jingling with each heavy step. He threw a plush red coat over his red velvet suit and, on his way to his sleigh, stopped beside the Clark family.
“Oh, what’s that? What’s that there?” Santa said, pointing a gloved finger at 4-year-old Lola Clark’s winter coat. She looked down, puzzled.
“Ope!” He laughed and gently tapped her nose. “I gotcha.”
Although the COVID-19 pandemic is in its ninth month, the Christmas spirit has endured for children and Santa Clauses alike. Sans the lap-sitting and hugs of years past, the tradition continues in central Iowa as Santas greet children on outdoor sets, from behind makeshift protective barriers and through computer screens.
(A note to our younger readers: Spoilers ahead!)
A 17th season unlike any other
Santa Ames also goes by Dave Greulich. The jolly 68-year-old invited Des Moines Register journalists into his work-from-home Santa space, a cozy green office with two artificial Christmas trees, each spinning slowly behind his chair. Dozens of Santa figurines line the walls.
“It’s kind of a subscription,” he said, gazing at the collection of ceramic Santas carrying cookies and presents. “Every month, you get three of them.”
Greulich has been playing Santa for nearly two decades. His first appearance was 17 years ago at a Kmart. Before he could even make it to the set inside, he recalled, a little girl saw him in the parking lot and broke from her dad’s side to sprint toward him.
“I got down on one knee and opened up my arms to her, and she ran into (me) and nearly knocked me over and literally melted into my arms and said, ‘I love you, Santa,'” he remembers.
“This is too good,” he recalled thinking. “I’m doing this the rest of my life.”
Since then, Greulich has appeared as Santa at malls, private events, and for the past seven years, in his front yard. He asks visiting families to bring canned goods, which he donates to Ames food bank Food at First. Greulich estimates he has donated more than 2 tons of food during his time as Santa.
The outdoor setup was extra useful this year. Although infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said in November that Santa was immune to COVID-19, Greulich had to balance his duties as St. Nicholas with the danger of exposing himself or his wife, Cindy, to the virus.
At the events in his yard, he doesn’t let the kids sit on his lap, instead seating them in a small metal sleigh and chatting beside them. Greulich hasn’t worn a mask as Santa, but most of the children and parents visiting him do.
“I have to also be smart with my wife, you know… (For) 18 years, she’s had ALS,” he said. “And if she were to get it, I mean, that would not be a good situation at all.”
Greulich is her primary caretaker, though he said they get assistance through Veterans Affairs. The Greulichs get 30 days of respite care – six hours a day of caretaking – which they usually save up for the holiday season so he can work.
“I look after him too, just in different ways, you know. Make sure he’s all buckled up the right way on the way out,” Cindy Greulich said, a red “ho-ho-ho” blanket draped over her lap. “We help each other. We’re a good team.”
Even outside of Santa’s office, the Greulich house is filled with Christmas decorations. A row of stockings hangs above the mantel, including one for Milo the cat. A tree laden with blue lights shines in the living room as a masked nurse sits on the couch, news about the COVID-19 vaccine playing quietly on the TV.
Despite the risk of infection, Cindy Greulich said skipping this year’s Santa visits was “never really a question. He always wanted to do it, even if it was like a different way.
“He still wanted to be there for the kids.”
Malls work to make Santa safe again
The various malls around the Des Moines metro still have hosted Santa visits in 2020, but with a twist.
At the Valley West Mall, Santa Bill Pattison sat behind a Plexiglas barrier in a set decorated to look like Santa’s office. It was his second year working at Valley West and his 15th year as Santa, but the setup was entirely new: Masked kids spoke into a microphone to communicate with him through the plastic glass, and he used a microphone to reply.
Most of the kids adjusted well to the new setup, Pattison said, but some had a bit of a learning curve.
“Even though they’re little tykes, they know the tradition of running up and jumping in Santa’s lap,” he said. “They’ve bumped into the Plexiglas.”
Pattison and his wife, Jeanne, who plays Mrs. Claus on the weekends, miss some of the personal interactions that come from traditional Santa visits. Sometimes kids would run up between shifts, asking for hugs while the Pattisons were out of their enclosure.
“That’s something that both sides have lost because that’s something that Mrs. Claus and I enjoy also,” he said. “There’s a lot of love exchanged there.”
Other kids brought some of their worries to their red-suited oracle. Pattison said a few wished they could go back to school. Others asked about the health of everyone at the North Pole: Had the elves or the reindeer gotten COVID-19? (The answer was no – the elves are too short to catch COVID-19, he told them, and the reindeer are just fine.)
But Pattison is used to dealing with delicate situations during the holidays. He recalled that in 2008 during the Great Recession, he and other Santas were aware that some families might not have gifts under the tree on Christmas morning. It’s a balance he’s thinking about this year, too.
“You still want to be leaving with a positive feeling and the idea that Christmas isn’t just about presents,” he said. “There’s much more to it.”
Rick Rosenthal, a longtime Santa and the dean of the Northern Lights Santa Academy in Georgia, advised Santas to avoid in-person events this year.
“Most Santas are in a minimum of two immune-compromised situations,” he said. “Most of them are over 65, and most of them are over 50 pounds overweight.”
For those that did appear at malls or private events, Rosenthal emphasized caution: making sure the set allowed them to maintain safe social distance and was sanitized; wearing masks and following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
From his vantage point as a Santa expert and consultant, Rosenthal watched as the unfolding pandemic threatened Santa traditions. In March, he said, when COVID-19 shutdowns began in the U.S., many places canceled their Santa plans. The phones were silent, and the Santa world was “in a tizzy,” he said.
But as the summer crept on, enthusiasm for the holidays grew.
“Americans need Christmas,” Rosenthal said. “It’s the one time of the year that everybody has hope.”
A visit with Santa goes virtual
As the world turned to Zoom for its gatherings during the pandemic, so, too, did some Santas.
In addition to its socially distanced setup, Jordan Creek Town Center in Des Moines, Iowa, partnered with website JingleRing to offer video calls from Santa for $24.95. The service allowed families to customize their Santa experience: Both white and Black Santas and Mrs. Clauses were available, as were performers who spoke Spanish or knew sign language.
Virtual Santa visits have existed for six or seven years, Rosenthal said, but the pandemic made them a “viable, basic cornerstone” of the industry. In addition to being safer for Santas and kids, the virtual visits expand the scope of Santa’s availability, allowing him to attend birthdays or soccer games, or to visit kids in a small town without a mall.
“You can have Santa virtually any time, 24 hours a day, for any event,” he said.
Dave Greulich also expanded into virtual visits this year. He offered custom-made videos through his website, Your Family Christmas Story. Parents filled out a survey to create a script, allowing Greulich to “video call” as an omniscient St. Nick who knew exactly what everyone would find on Christmas morning.
“The idea is to play it after everyone has opened up the gifts,” he explained. “Everybody’s kind of calmed down a little bit, they sit and they get a phone call from Santa.”
He gives an example, his eyes bright and his voice slipping easily into a soft, jovial tone:
“Well, hello, Hanson family!” he said. “It’s Santa, and I just got back to the North Pole from my looooong trip around the world.”
Follow Des Moines reporter Katie Akin on Twitter at @katie_akin.