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How Milwaukee Santas Are Bringing Kids Socially Distanced Cheer

Courtesy of Paul Akert
Paul Akert, a Santa stand-in who has switched to pre-recorded and live videos for kids this year, pictured with Mrs. Claus.

Taking a photo with Santa is much trickier this year. Pandemic concerns and physical distancing have forced people wanting to see Santa to come up with alternative ways to keep the tradition alive.

For kids around the world, sitting on Santa’s lap is a sacred holiday tradition. Some families spend hours in lines waiting for their chance to see Santa, but not this year.

Across the country, long lines are being replaced with reservation systems and there is absolutely no sitting on Santa’s lap.

At Brookfield Square Mall, kids are donning masks and sitting on a bench six feet away for their visit. Santa gets close enough to take their Christmas wish lists and then returns to his seat to read them aloud.

Credit Courtesy of Kelly Neumann
12-year-old Will Neumann's letter to Santa.

“Santa, I hope you’ve been well. What I would like for Christmas is a COVID-free world ... or at least a vaccine,” reads Santa.

That note was from a 12-year-old Will Neumann. He also asked for more typical things like a hoverboard and a new phone. His mom, Kelly Neumann, says that while it’s not the Santa experience they’re used to, she’s thankful for it.

“It’s just the happiness. Like in this time when it’s been so challenging, it’s nice to have something that they’re able to do that they’ve been used to doing and not have to say no,” says Neumann.

She says the safety precautions in place made feel confident about bringing her kids here today.

“I appreciate that Santa had a mask on. I appreciate that there’s a little bit of distance and it’s not terribly crowded,” she says.

Credit Courtesy of Kelly Neumann
Kelly Neumann has brought her children to Brookfield Square Mall for the past eight years to take a photo with Santa. This year Santa sits six feet away and reads their wishes out loud to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines.

While some businesses have found ways to safely have Santa appear in person, others are choosing to go virtual and relying on videos.

Paul Akert films his video in his basement — though a backdrop makes it look like he’s recording from Santa’s workshop. He’s on contract with a local toy store, which is charging $25 for each one-minute video. 

He provides both video and streaming options for parents who give him information Santa should have about their kids. Things like whether they have siblings, where they go to school and their favorite color.

Credit Courtesy of Paul Akert
Akert in Santa's sleigh.

Akert says that while he misses the energy he gets from face-to-face interaction, in some ways connecting online is more personal.

“You can imagine I’m talking with one child and another one wants my attention, and so being able to give the children undivided attention is a little bit more of a challenge in-person,” says Akert.

While online visits with Santa aren’t new, the pandemic is making them much more popular.

Ric Erwin chairs the board of directors for the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santa’s. He says about a third of his members canceled all of their in-person work this year. Erwin says those who sit in for the real Santa at events are relying on plexiglass barriers and even snow globe like structures to protect themselves. Still, he says they are working to spread the joy of Christmas.

Erwin says everyone is ready for a post-COVID-19 world, but even when that occurs, he suspects that the option of videos will remain popular.

“I believe that virtual visitation is going to become eventually as popular as the family Santa photo has been for generations,” he says.

Erwin says it’s easy to embrace the convenience of getting to see Santa without ever having to leave your home.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.