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End to UK virus curbs means Santa Claus really is coming to town

Santas arrive at The Ministry of Fun in London to take part in Santa School, a series of training courses for professional UK Santas.-AFP

After a “dark year”, Britain’s Santas are raring to meet children at live events once again this Christmas and even their reindeer are fully jabbed, a lineup of the white-bearded performers said on Tuesday. Due to coronavirus restrictions, many traditional grottos in large stores and shopping malls and children’s parties were closed last year, forcing Santas to listen to Christmas gift wish lists online.

This year, despite growing concerns over the new Omicron virus variant, imitators of the jolly festive present-giver working for a specialized London agency were upbeat and hopeful that in-person events will go ahead as planned. “It’s going to be the best Christmas ever, ho ho ho!” exclaimed one Santa in full costume attending a training session at Ministry of Fun, an agency that provides the festive entertainers for grottos, photo shoots and video calls.

This Christmas “will be very different, especially after the dark year we’ve had”, said another performer, who gave his name as Santa Kev. Last year, the Santas were hard-hit by lockdown measures, including just before Christmas as cases of the Delta variant soared. This year will be a “world of difference”, since “we’re back again with more live events”, said another of the entertainers, who gave his name simply as Santa. At the same time, “the world has changed since last year, and we will be foolish to ignore those changes”, he said.

“After all, we’ve only just been informed of yet another variant,” he added, referring to the heavily mutated Omicron strain of coronavirus. This year, “Christmas is well and truly on,” Ministry of Fun director Matt Grist insisted. “The demand for Christmas activities and to meet you wonderful Santas is greater than it’s ever been,” he told the group of performers, including seasoned Santas as well as novices, from backgrounds such as acting and teaching.

Demand up
Demand for Santas is up around 20 percent on 2019 pre-pandemic figures, Grist said, taking into account live appearances at grottos, photo shoots and department stores, as well as an online service set up last year. With the spread of the Omicron variant prompting fresh restrictions in England, including compulsory mask wearing in shops and on public transport, “the worldwide challenge with Covid is not over by any means”, Grist said.

“We always have to be vigilant, we have to be sensible, we have to be fluid.” Santas are equipped with red masks and grottos allow for social distancing, agency staff said. “All the reindeer are fully jabbed,” one Santa said. “And of course whenever I’m travelling on the sleigh, I’ll be sure to wear a big red mask.”

In a major change brought on by the pandemic, Santas have also got used to making video calls. While the move online was forced last year, the sessions proved popular with more shy children, who “tended to be more comfortable, because they’re in their own homes”, Grist told AFP. Children like to “show you all the drawings that they’ve made or toys that they’ve got or introduce you to their pets and so forth”, said one Santa. The training session reminded Santas that their “ho, ho, ho” should be “slightly gentler” when they make video calls and stressed the need for making eye contact by looking at the camera. – AFP

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