Constable: Ho, ho, hold on a sec, as 'Pandemic Santas' ponder COVID holidays
Santa Claus is coming to town.
Probably. Maybe. But you might not recognize him at first. Pandemic Santa might wear a mask, maybe a plastic face shield, and he'll keep kids off his lap and a safe distance away, possibly behind plexiglass. All while the paranoid side of you might be wondering if Rudolph the reindeer's red nose might be a symptom of the coronavirus.
"It would be difficult if you had a Santa and he had to wear a mask and do social distancing," says Paul Eggert, a 70-year-old father, grandfather and great-grandfather from Aurora who has a long white beard and a twinkle in his eyes. In the nearly three decades that he has assumed the persona of the jolly old elf, Eggert has learned how to make personal connections with children.
Timid and scared children during their first visit to Santa became comfortable in future years. "I had several kids who got to know Santa," Eggert says. "I had a lot of them who would run up and hug me."
Even if they saw him drive up not in his sleigh but a Honda CR-V -- "and it's red, well, maroon" -- children figured he'd come from the North Pole because he looked exactly as they thought Santa looked.
"I got the suit when my son was in Cubs Scouts and he's 35 now," says Eggert, who started out using an old Santa suit owned by his church.
"I was at a garage sale and I saw a suit. I asked how much and they said, 'If you're going to use it, you can have it,'" remembers Eggert, who still wears that suit every Christmas Eve for his family and also at private parties, church events, community gatherings and charity programs.
"In most cases, I don't like the gigs that pay anymore," Eggert says. "I'm doing this for the excitement of the season and the joy of the kids. The sparkle in the eyes of the kids seeing Santa Claus is worth a million dollars."
He'll still be Santa for his family this year, even if his 12 grandchildren all know it's "Santa Papa." But last December's schedule won't be this December's schedule. He usually plays Santa for an event at St. Katharine Drexel Catholic Church in Sugar Grove. But he's not sure if and how that would go this year.
"A drive-by Santa?" he says with a chuckle.
Jim and Deb Van Antwerp, who are known as Santa and Mrs. Claus of Rolling Meadows, know the pain of the present pandemic.
"The city has canceled the tree lighting. The park district has canceled their Breakfast With Santa," Jim Van Antwerp says. An event for a home association in Lake Barrington most likely will exchange the traditional lap experience for more of a Santa parade, he says.
"There's no sitting on his lap or whispering in his ear," Santa's better half says. The white-bearded Jim Van Antwerp, 61, has been portraying Santa since he and his wife took their kids to Randhurst Mall in Mount Prospect years ago and his look caught the eye of a Santa who was looking for some backup help.
"My kids thought Santa hand-picked their dad to help," Deb Van Antwerp remembers. "He looks like Santa Claus. In July, people come to our table at restaurants and say they've been good."
Eggert, who also sports a long white beard of his own, says his beard always got a workout when he did his Christmas in July gig (but not this year because of COVID-19) at the Banana Split ice cream shop in Aurora. Kids pulled on his beard "almost constantly" to see if it was a fake.
One particularly skeptical boy was a problem. "Before he sat down, he kicked me in the shin," Eggert says. Then he yanked Eggert's beard.
"You should have seen his face when he pulled my beard and my chin came down with it," Eggert says. "He had the most astonished look on his face. He told his mom and dad, 'I think that's the real Santa.'"
Kids want to believe. Even though my best friend in first grade insisted Santa was make-believe, I remained a staunch believer. As a symbol of goodness and generosity, Santa has the power to influence young lives.
So maybe a Santa wearing a mask is a good thing, says Eggert, who notes kids, and their parents, might figure, "'Hey, if Santa wears a mask, maybe I better wear one, too.'"