On Wednesdays at 5:30 p.m. Jerry Knight takes his place at the AT&T Center in full uniform: red suit, black boots, a freshly groomed beard, and a face shield.
Knight, 66, has slipped into his identity as Santa Claus every holiday season for the past 22 years. He started his Santa career at Candlewood Elementary School, where his wife, Freda Knight, worked at the time, and he never stopped.
“I just love the look in the kids’ eyes and the sparkle and the love that’s there – the astonishment when they do see Santa,” he said.
But this year, his Santa routine looks a little different because of the coronavirus pandemic. In order to follow public health guidelines and keep his visitors safe, Knight wears a face shield at all of his Santa assignments and maintains at least 6 feet of distance from kids and parents. He considered wearing a face mask during events but concluded that it would hide too much of his beard and spoil the magic of Santa. He wears a mask everywhere else, Knight said, and does his best to boost his immune system.
“We always wear a mask where we go,” he said. “We always use hand sanitizer. We’re constantly washing our hands, and we wash our clothes more often than we used to. We eat a lot more citrus fruit and take our Airborne.”
Santa Claus is a rule-follower, according to Santa Claus agent Renee Davis. Davis runs San Antonio-based Santa Express Central, through which she manages more than 40 Santa Clauses. She had to take some of her Santas off the roster this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, she said. The Santas that are still active will mostly be doing virtual visits and drive-by events.
Having Santa Claus in some form, even if virtual, can be so important during the holidays, Davis said. And even though parents may feel pressure to recreate Santa visits from pre-pandemic days, it’s not necessary.
“Parents are tired of kids at home,” she said. “Kids are tired of being at home. … The biggest thing is patience and [allowing] the child to have the experience in whatever way you’re comfortable doing it for your family. Kids are OK seeing Santa virtually, I think. Seeing Santa from a distance is great.
“[There is pressure to] feel that everything has to be completely normal. And I don’t know that we have normal yet.”
Santa Express Central is not the only company organizing pandemic-adjusted Santa visits in the San Antonio area. Hondo-based Virtual Santa Visits provides clients with live video calls with one of their Santa Clauses, all the way from the “North Pole.” In traditional Santa form, he asks each child what they want for Christmas and requests cookies. Visits start at $70 for a 10-minute Santa call and go all the way up to $175 for large, virtual family gatherings, where kids can hear a story read by an elf and Santa addresses each by name.
“We kind of sat down and said, ‘OK, how will this work?’” said Katie Cunningham, founder of Virtual Santa Visits.
Cunningham, who runs party-planning company Lyfetymes, works with many retired “Santas” who she said were excited about the possibility of keeping their side gig as the jolly man in the red suit this year despite the pandemic – especially because many Santas are older and at higher risk of complications if they contract the novel coronavirus.
Even though company holiday parties have looked different in 2020, the demand for Santa is still there. Several corporations booked Santa Claus to add seasonal cheer to morning meetings or as part of their virtual Christmas parties this year, Cunningham said. The visits have also been held in Spanish, American Sign Language, or in ways that accommodate special-needs individuals.
“We’ve done everything from church groups to classroom drop-ins,” Cunningham said. “It’s been really fun.”
Santa Express Central also has provided virtual visits to companies for their events, with pre-recorded videos from Santa Claus or live visits, Davis said. Mr. Claus still appeared in person at some company events; Davis said she still has Santa Clauses visiting drive-by events at Frost Bank locations around Texas. On Dec. 5, Ken Dempsey found himself at a Frost Bank in Houston, waving at children as they passed by in cars and waved back.
Dempsey has put on the Santa uniform for about six years now, he estimated. The 73-year-old worked as a firefighter in San Antonio for 30 years and currently owns a wedding venue and commercial property in Helotes, which keeps him quite busy already, he said. But he still finds time during the holidays to visit children as Santa.
“The best part about Santa is being with the kids and seeing their eyes,” Dempsey said, echoing Knight’s words. But he also cherishes the opportunity to act as their confidante. Some children tell him about their sorrows as well as their joys, and he is often touched by their words.
“Maybe they don’t want gifts, they just want their daddy back,” he said. “Or [they’ll say], ‘I don’t want anything, but I want my brother to get his bike’ – things that are quite selfless.”
Through Jan. 3, Dempsey will spend two or three nights of each week at the AT&T Center for the IllumiNight drive-thru light show, where Knight can be found every Wednesday evening. He loves being there and taking photos with kids from a distance, though he misses hugging his little visitors. At other events, he’s had to dodge a couple of quick ones who run up and grab him around the legs.
“They try to sneak up on you once in a while,” he laughed. “But I think all the Santas have become accustomed to the way we’re having to handle it this year. And again, it’s all about trying to make it as normal as possible for the children but knowing what we have to do [to keep them safe].”
It takes quite a bit of encouragement to get Dempsey to break character as Santa, even for an interview. He insisted that he is more than 1,500 years old and explained that reindeer need carrots on Christmas Eve placed alongside the typical Christmas cookies, because they have to fly all over the world in one night. But that dedication to making the Santa experience as immersive as possible pays off for the kids he’s visited over the years.
“By the time we’re done talking, you know, it’s kind of like Santa does exist,” Dempsey said. “They pull my beard and ask questions about what goes on at the North Pole, or ‘How is Mrs. Claus?’ or ‘How are the elves?’ So many times they walk away and they actually will say, ‘Mom, I met Santa.’ It’s kind of a special thing. It’s all part of bringing joy, and it’s the Christmas experience that keeps Santa going.”
Reporter Lindsey Carnett contributed to this story.
Frost Bank is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. To view a full list of business members, click here.