Santa Claus is still coming to town — thanks to a group of friends who are slipping on red velvet suits to pay socially-distanced holiday visits to Winnipeg families over the next two weeks.
They call themselves the Travelling Santas, and they’re volunteering evenings to make Christmas brighter for local children while following COVID-19 pandemic protocols and collecting non-perishable food items for Harvest Manitoba.
"It’s just a group of friends and family going out to try to see as many homes and children as possible," said organizer Jason Gray, 33. "We have six Santas — seven, including myself — and we have a Mrs. Claus and an elf.
"It’s mainly my close friends and my father, Brian Gray (a retired Free Press employee). My step-mom is Mrs. Claus. The whole idea is to get kids to tell Santa what they want for Christmas, just like at the shopping mall."
"This is 100 per cent for charity. It’s about giving back to the community and making the kids COVID–19 Christmas a little more special." – Jason Gray
Gray, an independent sales agent for auto-body products, said while virtual visits with Santa are growing in popularity amid the COVID-19 lockdown, it’s just not the same as seeing Santa in the flesh, albeit from a safe distance.
The group is asking interested parents to book a time on their new website, www.thetravellingsantas.com (type directly into address bar to avoid confusion with a similar U.S. group). They can also be contacted through email at: email@example.com.
"There’s no fee," Gray said. "This is 100 per cent for charity. It’s about giving back to the community and making the kids COVID-19 Christmas a little more special.
"We’re not getting anything out of this other than the joy of bringing some positivity to others."
He noted the in-person visits will be in the evenings after 5:30 p.m., because all the volunteer Santas have day jobs.
"Once the parents book a time slot, Santa shows up on their sidewalk," he said. "They’ll have to give us some information like their phone number so that Santa can call and talk to the kids.
"The kids will go to their front door or the window and be able to see Santa in the flesh and be able to talk to him through the cellphone and tell him what they want for Christmas."
The mask-wearing Santas will leave candy canes on the doorstep at the end of the visit.
"We’re hoping the parents will leave a non-perishable food item out that we can deliver to Harvest Manitoba," he said. "I would urge them to go to the food bank’s website to make a donation or to do that through our website.
"If we could do 20 (visits), that would be amazing, but if we could do 100, that would be even better."
The idea was formed a couple of weeks ago, when the independent sales agent was invited by his best friend and his girlfriend to dress up as the Jolly Old Elf and make a socially-distanced visit to their children.
"It’s not just going to make the kids’ Christmas better, but the volunteers as well." – Jason Gray
"So then I thought, why stop with them? Why not go visit my other friends’ children and bring joy to their COVID Christmas. Then the light bulb went off and I went, wait a minute — what if I had multiple Santas as volunteers and we could go throughout the city and visit as many children as possible and have them be able to talk with Santa over the phone?" he recalled.
"Then I started calling all my friends and family and asked them, first of all, if I was crazy, and then whether they were interested. Everybody I asked said it’s a great idea and let’s do it. I wish I’d thought about it a month ago, so we would have had more time to spread the word on this."
It’s challenging arranging in-person visits from Kris Kringle amid a global health crisis, but Gray said all the volunteer Santas, along with their elf and Mrs. Claus, are keenly aware of the pandemic safety protocols.
"All of our volunteers will be wearing masks," he said. "We’ll be socially distanced. The only people who will go together are people who live together like my dad and my step-mom and my buddy and his girlfriend who is playing the elf.
"The other Santas will just go on their own. I don’t want any of our volunteers breaking the COVID rules or getting fined."
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Gray noted he has to spend four days in B.C. on a work trip this week, so his volunteer troupe of travelling Santas will be carrying the bulk of the load until he returns and joins the holiday mix.
But everyone is equipped with a Santa suit — "Some of them are nicer than others" — candy canes, and a heaping helping of the Christmas spirit. "I’ve had a group chat with everyone involved to explain the rules," he said. "It’s not just going to make the kids’ Christmas better, but the volunteers as well."
The group is open to having more Santas sign on, but all volunteers will be vetted by Gray.
He said he came up with the notion of the Travelling Santas because he wanted to do more than just donate to a worthy cause during a holiday season unlike any other.
"I’ve seen people struggle with their careers and their mental health due to the pandemic," he said. "It broke my heart when I went to the mall and realized kids can’t sit on Santa’s lap this year. It’s very important to give back and try to spread some positivity through the negative situation we’re living in."
Doug Speirs Columnist
Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.
You can go online to book an appointment with a socially-distanced volunteer Santa at www.thetravellingsantas.com. (It's best to search with Google Chrome or type the address into your computer's address bar.)
They can also be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Manitobans are preparing to celebrate a holiday season unlike any other in memory. We’d like you to share your stories of people going above and beyond to celebrate the season amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Share them with columnist Doug Speirs at email@example.com.