It’s all uncharted territory, this odd and uncomfortable combination of COVID-19 and Christmas.
Some of Santa’s favorite haunts are closed for the season due to the pandemic, to the dismay of young children anxious to visit with the Jolly Fat Man. In most cases even if Santa does make an appearance, there will be none of the intimate lap sessions that traditionally make baby’s first Christmas one for the scrapbooks and photo albums.
Fraternal, veteran and civic organizations that annually host Christmas programs for children have largely abandoned those plans amid rising numbers of coronavirus cases in Northwest Ohio, admirably choosing safety over sentimentality even when such decisions can be gut-wrenching.
Santa will make a visit to the Lima Mall again this year, but to call it “normal” would be a stretch. Children with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads will not be permitted to sit on Santa’s lap but will have the opportunity to engage in conversation with St. Nick while maintaining required physical distancing norms. Facial coverings will be required for all guests ages 10 and over. Reservations are requested.
The Delphos Kiwanis Club will host Santa, but only in the form of a drive-by, where youngsters can wave from the safety of the family car and hold a long-distance chat with the visitor from the North Pole.
Betty Leap, who has headed up the annual program at the Kerner-Slusser Post 63 of the American Legion in Ottawa for “lots of years,” said she is disappointed that this year’s event had to be canceled, as were most similar events in the region.
“We usually have games for the children with prizes and food and, of course, a visit from Santa,” Leap said. “But this year there’s just no way, unfortunately. You can’t self-distance 4-year-olds.”
The show must go on
Then there’s Connie McNeal. The Russells Point native has been playing Santa for more than 40 years, and it’s going to take more than a virus to end that streak.
Not that McNeal downplays the severity of the pandemic. She’ll have a mask under her white beard at all times and is doing more drop-off visits and drive-bys than in previous years. But she knows families are struggling this year and feels a visit from Santa — which always has been and always will be free of charge — is more necessary than ever.
“The need this year is just so great. Some parents are afraid to take their kids to the mall, and then there are other families torn apart by opiates or parents just not having it together,” McNeal said. “But kids will never go without a Santa if I can help it.”
At 57 years of age, McNeal first donned a red suit, white beard and wig when she was “15 or 16” years old, filling in for another seasonal Santa who had become ill. For the next four decades, she and her “gang” — comprised of helpers wearing costumes of The Grinch, elves and angels — have visited hospitals, nursing homes, businesses and “friends of friends” to spread some holiday cheer.
“Because of what’s going on this year and to keep things safe, it’s just Santa and The Grinch who are making appearances,” McNeal said. Last weekend she visited the Uptown Market Place on Cole Street and will return there next month.
“This year I’m really trying to give back to the businesses in Lima. There’s such a great need,” she said. “I never charge anyone; I don’t believe in that. When I was visited by Santa growing up, they never charged money. They lived on donations, and that’s what I do. I mean, you’ve got moms who are raising their kids on a waitress salary. I’m not going to charge them.”
While it would be reasonable to expect that COVID-19 has cut into her appearances as Jolly St. Nick this year, McNeal said quite the opposite is true.
“Actually I’ve had more requests this year than ever. I’m booked up. I wish there were more hours in the day,” she said.
McNeal, who was recently diagnosed with cancer — “I think we caught it in time,” she said — by her own definition is “not a wealthy woman” in terms of financial gains. She does, however, feel enriched by the “sparkle in the eyes of children” when Santa visits with them during the holiday season.
“There are a lot of parents struggling to put food on the table this year,” McNeal said. “I wish there were more donations coming in (to charitable agencies) to make sure there are no kids left behind. Kids will never go without a Santa if I can help it.”
McNeal calls herself a “very private person” and would not allow a photograph of herself out of costume. But she never forgets her humble beginnings.
“I enjoy what I do. Playing Santa is just my way of giving back. I’m just trying to keep the spirit of Christmas alive,” she said.
Derailed by the pandemic
Unlike McNeal, Columbus Grove resident Rick Ricker found himself to be an out-of-work Santa this holiday season. And it’s hard for him to swallow.
After 15 years or more of donning the red suit and beard for events at VFWs, Legion posts, Knights of Columbus halls and even nursing homes, Ricker has been forced to suffer through eight or more cancellations this year.
He started portraying St. Nicholas for his own family, and as word began to spread he widened his holiday circle to include friends and friends of friends.
“Then the Grove VFW called, and I did their kids’ Christmas party. The Ottawa K of C got wind of it, and I’ve been doing their Christmas party for several years. That’s a really big one with 300 kids or more,” Ricker said.
“Then Betty Leap called, and I’ve been doing the Ottawa Legion party for about 10 years,” he said. “I really like kids, but you sometimes hear stories that could make even Santa Claus cry. You hear about their home lives and some of it can be pretty tough.”
Ricker, who accepts donations but does not charge a fee for his appearances, said he also enjoys visits to nursing homes “because it makes me feel good.”
But this year his Santa suit will remain in the box as a worldwide pandemic has hit Northwest Ohio particularly hard.
“I hate it, but I understand it. Kids want to hug Santa, and I can’t not hug them,” Ricker said. “When I do parties I always make everyone — regardless of age — sit on my lap. I can’t do that this year, and it hurts me. But I’m not doing it from behind a piece of plexiglass!”