It’s normally the most wonderful time of the year. But for professional Santas, the coronavirus has presented major conundrums this holiday season.
“A few months ago, we had a group of Santas get on a Zoom, just like any other job,” Texas St. Nick Barry Swindall told The Post. “We shared ideas about what we could still do.”
Swindall is also one of the subjects in photographer Ron Cooper’s new book, “We Are Santa: Portraits and Profiles.” The tome captures some of America’s most creative and devoted professionals.
“Some kids have asked for Santa to take away COVID. I say, ‘If Santa had the magic to do it, he would have,’ ” said Swindall. “We need Santa and the Christmas spirit more than ever.”
Here, meet some of the book’s delightful subjects and learn how they’re ho-ho-ho-ing through COVID.
Barry Swindall, 65, has been playing Santa since his college days when he bought a suit and fake beard to visit nursing homes, churches and schools. But after growing out his own beard eight years ago, he feels he truly became St. Nick.
“I’ve been doing Santa for 47 years, but I’ve been living with it for eight years. Finally I gave in to the calling,” Swindall told The Post.
The retired mail carrier, who dons the red suit at a place that offers holiday train rides in Grapevine, Texas, isn’t letting a pandemic stop him from bringing joy.
“We built a set, and I am kind of in a fish tank with plexiglass walls and a fireplace behind me. The children sit on a bench in front of me. The inspiration was a snow globe,” he said adding that the plexiglass doesn’t show up in pictures.
He’s also done many virtual visits, and changed up his yearly “selfies with Santa” initiative at the local high school. Instead of getting up close and personal with students, he sat in the bed of his pickup truck and the kids did a longer-distance selfie with him in the background.
“I said, ‘Christmas spirit easily reaches six feet,’” he added. “There’s always ways around it.”
Swindall, who owns 10 Santa suits — including this patriotic getup that’s a replica of one that cartoonist Thomas Nast drew in 1863 for Harper’s Weekly of Santa visiting Civil War soldiers — is as devoted as ever.
“My goal is for people to leave [after meeting Santa] and have a little wonderment in their eye and think maybe I was the real one,” he said.
Swashbuckling St. Nick
Nicholas Cardello, a Tampa, Fla., photojournalist, grew out his beard simply because he liked it. So did kids, it turns out. When he went out in public, children would inevitably run up and ask if he was Santa — so he decided to make it official four years ago.
“When you’re Santa, it’s like having a dog. It takes down people’s inhibitions. Kids hug you and parents don’t balk. People talk to you,” said Cardello, 57.
He took improv classes to keep up with the unexpected things kids can say. “You need to think on your feet,” he said. “They really open up to you.” He also had to react quickly to the pandemic. Cardello works festivals (including Tampa’s Gasparilla Pirate Festival — hence the costume seen here, one of many), and in 2018 was hired by luxury hotels in China. Now he’s doing virtual visits from his home studio. He said kids ask for Baby Yoda and Lol dolls and, yes, for COVID to go away.
Cardello, who has “more hair-care products than women,” added that his jolly job “is a calling and you can’t do it halfheartedly. I’m Santa 365 days a year.”
The scholarly Jolly Old Elf
James Nuckles might be the most well-educated Santa around. A devout Christian who has his master’s degree in religious education, he is now midway through his Ph.D. dissertation. And naturally, the 73-year-old has been to “I can’t tell you how many Santa schools.”
Since being discovered at a mall in 2006 (a worker fell for his beard and pursued Nuckles until he agreed to be the mall’s Santa), the military veteran and Georgia resident has put on the red suit for everything from private parties to auto-shop appearances.
But this year he has chosen to turn down gigs because of COVID-19. “Some people don’t care for [wearing] a mask,” he lamented. “I have to keep moving in spite of the situation. I have done some virtual visits. I have to improvise,” added Nuckles, who will also work food and toy drives and do socially distanced visits with small groups. “I cannot tolerate children being unhappy, especially around Christmastime.”
And this St. Nick also has a wish list of his own: “My dream would be to play Santa on the Apollo stage.”
The baby-faced Kris Kringle
At just 20 years old, Hunter Woodson is one of the youngest Santas on the circuit. He first dressed up at the age of 3, when his great-grandma made him a suit out of a red jogging ensemble and a fake beard from CVS, then went pro in high school. That’s when he learned being St. Nick came with complications.
“A little girl told me her dad was in Africa and she wanted him to come home for Christmas. What do you say to that?” he told The Post. “I froze, but thankfully her mom stepped in and saved my butt.”
Woodson has worked gigs at schools, a local ski resort and private parties. He’s attended six Santa schools, owns nine suits and recently bought a circa-1858 sleigh that he’s going to fix up for photo ops — hopefully for 2021.
“But this year, I had to cancel most visits. I did the local parade and some visits on a porch, and we are working on the Internet stuff, too,” Woodson told The Post. Still, he has interacted with enough kids to know they’re all after the elusive PlayStation 5. “The girls still want Barbies and baby dolls,” he said, noting there was “one little boy who wanted a coonhound and a hunting vest.
The classic Santa
With a big white beard and matching long hair, Indianapolis native Ward Bond first put on a Santa suit in 2015 after his pastor convinced him to play St. Nick. But he wasn’t prepared for how the red ensemble would also transform his personality.
“I almost felt like I was born to do this,” Bond, 50, told The Post. “It brought something out in me. I always had a softer side, but my background was in construction and I didn’t always get the opportunity to show it.”
Now he spends four months of the year playing Santa at Storybook Experiences photo studio in West Islip, Long Island, which changed its protocols in light of the coronavirus, installing an air filtration system and rebuilding its studios to promote social distancing between St. Nick and the kids who come to see him. There are deep cleanings between visits, COVID-19 screenings for employees, temperature checks and, of course, masks. Bond wears a “magic” mask that is clear, so it all but disappears in the picture.
Bond knows Santa is needed more than ever this year, and he’s savoring every victory. “I had a kid who had leukemia and wasn’t supposed to make it to Christmas. The first year he came out to see me, we prayed and I praised his twin brother for sticking beside him,” said Bond, stifling tears while he recalled his most recent visit from the family. “This year is four years later, and he is cancer-free.”