Matt and Melissa Kay, their neighbors and four kids drove from Luzerne County to Cabela’s in Tilden Township with one thing in mind — so the kids could see Santa Claus.
“No matter what we’re facing, the pandemic included, we’re not going to allow it to snuff out the Christmas spirit for our family,” declared Kay, 38, a chief financial officer at a medical facility. “We’re determined to maintain the Christmas spirit for our kids.”
As the holiday season kicks off, and COVID-19 cases surge to record levels across the country, families like the Kays say it's more important than ever that their kids see Santa Claus in person.
Christmas 2020, however, is like none other in living memory.
Getting to see the venerable “right jolly old elf” immortalized in Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem, “The Night Before Christmas,” is proving more difficult this year.
Popular venues like Reading’s “Christmas on the Mountain” and Gring’s Mill Recreation Area have furloughed Santa due to concerns about transmitting the virus.
In places that have a live Santa in residence, such as Cabela’s and Wyomissing's Berkshire Mall, kids have to convey their Christmas wish lists from a distance of 6 or more feet or from behind a plexiglass shield.
In the era of COVID-19, the cherished tradition of kids having their photo taken on Santa’s lap has fallen by the cultural wayside, at least for the moment.
Taking no chances
Its entrance guarded by a pair of giant toy soldiers, Santa’s Wonderland at Cabela’s features a North Pole snowscape inhabited by reindeer, elves and, naturally, the man himself seated outside his workshop.
Edward Bartolotta, general manager, said the store has implemented a series of protective measures to ensure the health and safety of kids, their families and the store’s staff.
Entering Santa’s Wonderland, families and Cabela’s team members undergo temperature screenings with a non-contact thermometer. Santa’s no exception.
During contactless visits, a Magic Santa Shield of glare-free plexiglass separates Santa from his anxious young admirers. One of Santa’s helpers sanitizes the area after each visit.
Seeing Santa at Cabela’s is free, but online reservations on the store’s website are required.
Because of demand, Bartolotta said, the store has expanded the size of Santa’s Wonderland and opened it earlier than last year.
“We listened to our customers,” Bartolotta said, “and they told us, ‘We want Santa’.”
Santa goes cyber
Berkshire Mall is offering two ways for kids to visit Santa — in-person and online.
In-person visits with Santa in the mall’s center court start Dec. 3 — more than two weeks later than last year — and run through Christmas Eve, according to the website of Cherry Hill Programs, which runs the attraction.
This year Cherry Hill launched Create Holiday Magic, a website tailored to help families keep their holiday traditions alive during the COVID-19 pandemic, the company announced in October.
Starting on Nov. 6, children and families were able to visit Santa on personalized Zoom video calls organized by Cherry Hill.
Online visits include My Photo With Santa, Story Time With Santa and a live video call with Santa.
Packages start at $9.99 and run to $79.99, according to the website. Details can be found at www.CreateHolidayMagic.com.
The spirit lives
In her Christmas dress, a full-skirted burgundy silk accented with a black tulle and a bow, 7-year-old Morgan Miller cut a timeless image while having her picture taken with Santa at Cabela’s.
It could have been Pomeroy’s in downtown Reading during the 1950s, when kids wore their Sunday best to have their photos taken with Santa.
Morgan’s mom, Melissa Miller, recalled sitting on Santa’s lap at the Berkshire and Fairgrounds Square malls not all that long ago.
She wanted Morgan and her older brother, Grant, to have something of the same experience to look back on when they’re adults.
“With everything that’s going on, we have to keep some of our traditions alive and make something of the season,” said Miller, a Leesport physical therapist assistant.
Cali Hammer, 5, confided she’d asked Santa for a Barbie Dream House, a perennial favorite with children at Christmastime. Barbie, by the way, turns 61 this year and will be eligible for Social Security next year.
Cali’s older brother, Bryce, 7, had a little more expensive tastes — an Apple Watch.
Their parents, Paul and Jessica Hammer of Ontelaunee Township, cherish their children’s excitement as Christmas approaches.
“We just want to keep things as normal as possible,” said Jessica, 38, a hairdresser.
Laura Weaver brought her daughters, Kaylee, 11, and Chloe, 8, to see Santa for much the same reason.
“Even more so this year, it’s important to keep the spirit alive in the hearts of everyone,” said Weaver, 40, a Bernville teacher. “Seeing the joy in the faces of the kids is more important than anything else that’s going on.”