The Way We Work Now

I’m a Mall Santa Trying to Capture the Christmas Spirit Over Zoom

‘It’s been quite a learning curve’

Photo illustration; source image courtesy of Ed Taylor

The Way We Work Now is a series chronicling how people’s lives and careers have fundamentally changed because of the pandemic.

Ed Taylor is a 66-year-old Santa Claus impersonator living in Hollywood, California. He spoke to Mai Tran about how he’s used Zoom to meet with families remotely during the holiday season.

I wear two hats: one as a Santa Claus portrayal artist, and the other as the founder of an organization called the Worldwide Santa Claus Network, which has about 3,400 members around the world. I’ve worked in some malls, but mostly I do home and company parties, as well as tree-lighting ceremonies. Now I’m doing 100% virtual meetings. I had about 160 already booked ahead of Thanksgiving. I’m sure I’ll probably do 300 or more in total, and I love it.

In early spring, we saw the writing on the wall and made a pivot from our normal training, which focused on being Santa in malls, home parties, community events, and parades. We shifted to virtual visits. One of the guys jumped on with his background animated—a fire was going in the fireplace, and it was snowing out his windows—and all our jaws dropped. We found out he was using a green screen. In short order, we wound up buying lights, green screens, all this stuff.

We’ve had hundreds of Santas around the world who have embraced this and learned a whole new skill set, not only with the technology, but also with the huge difference in interaction. If you’re a Santa in a mall, a typical interaction with a child is maybe a minute or two. The focus is primarily asking the child what they want for Christmas, getting a great photo — not much beyond that, especially if you’re in one of the busy malls. The virtual visits tend to run eight minutes or longer. All of a sudden we had to learn a lot about having conversations with youngsters and how to keep them engaged and interested. It’s been quite a learning curve, but it’s been wonderful.

In this year of so much darkness, there are little silver linings in all the gray areas.

Kids haven’t been asking for many different things this year, other than the older kids asking for faster Wi-Fi. I think the parents probably put more on this than the children do. Their basic requests seem to be very similar to what I always hear.

I was a volunteer Santa Claus for seven years at fundraisers for hospitals, women’s shelters, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and it took me quite a while before I decided I would accept any money for doing it. There are a lot of Santas who volunteer in their communities, and a small number are year-round Santas. I think the vast majority are retired and just like to earn a little extra income during the holiday season.

In this year of so much darkness, there are little silver linings in all the gray areas. Many families don’t go out to visit Santa at the mall because they have kids on the autistic spectrum, and it’s not comfortable to be out in large crowds or around big noises. One of the training programs we do involves how to serve the disabled community, and we’ve brought in some experts to help with that. Over and over again, they talk about the beauty of the virtual experience for disabled communities and how it’s something really special. There is also a company that came around this year called JingleRing. They provide virtual visits and hire bilingual Santas, Black Santas, Hispanic Santas, etc. The virtual way allows people to find a Santa who’s a fit for them. I think that’s a really great thing, because it’s something that wasn’t readily available in the physical world. You just went to the mall, and whoever’s there is there.

For the people who portray Santa and Ms. Claus, it’s way more than a retail job. They really care about what Santa Claus represents and what it means. Technology is so wonderful because we can connect and do our online training, and when Zoom popped up, we could all see each other. I was on a call last night with a little over 200 Santas and Ms. Clauses, and it’s wonderful to see all the faces.

writer based in new york

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