As shopping moves online at an unprecedented rate, so too has another venerable holiday tradition: the children’s visit with Santa Claus.
Malls are under social distancing restrictions that mean kids have to visit Santa through Plexiglas barriers or, in the case of some retailers like Macy’s, not at all. But many families are choosing to connect with St. Nick the way so many people are connecting with others this year: through Zoom.
Cherry Hill Programs, which claims to be the largest provider of mall Santa programs, has for the first time created packages that let kids conduct their sessions with Santa via Zoom, with the red-suited Christmas mainstay greeting them from a festive environment set up for the season in Cherry Hill’s studios.
“We took about a quarter of our corporate facility here in New Jersey, and we converted it to the North Pole,” says Graham McFarland, Cherry Hill’s CTO.
Kids can talk to Santa about how they’re doing in school, how their families have been doing during this unusual year, and, of course, what they want for Christmas. Families also get a video of the session to review after the fact. Santa can make sure to confirm for kids that they’re on the “nice” list, not the “naughty” one. And adults can fill out a form before the virtual visit making sure Santa is aware of kids’ interests and ready with facts like the names of their siblings and pets, often to children’s delight, McFarland says.
As part of the packages, families can also upload digital photos of themselves or their pets, pick virtual backgrounds, and use Cherry Hill’s software to create their own photos with Santa. And for those who simply want to check in on Santa’s festive activities, the company has set up a TikTok page with Santa dancing to plenty of popular tunes.
Cherry Hill isn’t the only company bringing Santa into the social distancing era: Macy’s is offering online Santaland experiences, including digital selfies with Santa; and Sittercity, which matches families with childcare providers, is offering digital group sessions with Santa. The Postal Service has moved its Operation Santa program online by letting volunteers answer letters addressed to Santa through the internet, although physical gifts still get sent through the postal system. Other traditionally remote Christmas activities, like the Santa trackers from NORAD and Google, will be online as usual, after U.S. infectious disease chief Dr. Anthony Fauci reassured the public that Santa’s visits won’t spread the virus.
While Zooming with Santa might seem to lack some of the charm of the traditional in-person visit, the technology can allow families who are physically separated to join together for the occasion online. For that reason, McFarland says virtual Santa might be “here to stay,” even for future Christmases, once it’s practical for more people to visit Santa and his elves in person. Though he reminded Fast Company that “there’s only one real Santa,” McFarland says his company has the capacity to handle plenty of Santa visits through the holiday season.
“Through the magic of the holiday spirit,” he says, “we’re able to do more than 1,000 virtual visits a day and tens of thousands over the holidays.”