It’s about this time of year that the big supermarkets like Coles and Woolies start stocking their shelves with mince pies and puddings. It may still be a couple of months to Christmas but it’s their almost subliminal way of gearing you up for the big Yuletide spend. How Christmas will pan out during the current COVID restrictions remains to be seen but one institution that is bound to be missing is the beloved store Santa.
Social distancing protocols are bound to put the kibosh on any chance of kiddies sitting on Santa’s knee to request an extravagant list of Christmas presents. The department store Santa was rapidly disappearing from the retail landscape anyway, so COVID could well spell the end a tradition that dates back to the late 1800s. The first recorded store Santa took place in 1890 at Edgars in Boston, when the owner ‘Colonel Jim’ Edgar donned a specially made costume and created an immediate sensation.
In the years that followed thousands of Santas were employed around the world in department stores and shopping malls of all sizes. If you were a rotund gentleman in your 60s or 70s, with unlimited patience with children, this was a guaranteed Christmas gig. It wasn’t long before dedicated training schools appeared, as well as specialist outfitters who supplied costumes and beards. In the US, the International University of Santa Claus, supposedly the world’s largest Santa school, boasts some 4,500 graduates although not surprisingly has suspended all operations during the current pandemic.
Over the past few decades Santas have been gradually disappearing from Sydney department stores and shopping centres, unlike the golden years of the 50s, 60s and 70s where Santaland was an essential for any big retailer. The big CBD department stores like Anthony Horderns, Grace Bros and David Jones splurged thousands every year on installing elaborate ‘winter wonderlands’ in their endeavour to lure shoppers from the suburbs. The fake snow and icicles seemed strangely out of place in a stinking hot Australian summer but reflected the nostalgia at the time for the traditional English Christmas.
So unless there is a radical change to current COVID restrictions, it looks like Sydney’s dwindling number of professional Santas will be hanging up their beards for the current season. Maybe they can still appear at a few selected stores, surrounded by a protective plastic screen, with children communicating like visitors do in a prison situation. That doesn’t sound like much fun but some innovation is needed if Santas are to survive.
Inevitably we’ll realise some kind of virtual replacement this year, where Santa is just the click of a mouse away or arrives to greet an audience of present hungry kids on Zoom. There are of course some young children who will probably be glad to see an absence of Santas this year – that unfortunate minority who suffer ‘Santaphobia’ or ‘Clausophobia’. Who can blame them? Not everybody wants to sit on the knee of a fat bearded stranger and be greeted with a burst of guttural ho ho hos. One American survey estimated that over 90% of kids under five kick and scream when forced to sit on Santas lap.
Apparently there are some children, so traumatised by the experience, that they carry that phobia right through into their adulthood. Perhaps we should take time out during the current COVID experience to sanitise our future Santas and make them less creepy. Get rid of that stupid beard for starters, put Santa on a diet and even introduce some female Santas as the US did successfully during WWII. As James Brown might have once said, it’s time that “Santas Got A Brand New Bag.”