George Smith, 71, a Boeing retiree who has been a Santa Claus for more than 13 years, at his decorated home in Lynnwood. When around kids, he will be socially distanced and wear a mask. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

George Smith, 71, a Boeing retiree who has been a Santa Claus for more than 13 years, at his decorated home in Lynnwood. When around kids, he will be socially distanced and wear a mask. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

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Don’t cry, don’t pout, mask up: Santa is still coming to town

The malls plan to have him in person and socially distanced. “We need holiday cheer,” says a mall manager.

EVERETT — Santa Claus is coming to town. Just don’t expect to sit on his lap.

What’s up with that?

This COVID Christmas, some Santas will be behind plastic shields or inside protective snow globes.

At local malls, he’ll be socially distanced.

“We are going to have a Santa in the flesh,” said Ray Chavez, Everett Mall manager. “We need holiday cheer. People are yearning for some semblance of a traditional experience with all that we’ve been through.”

Santa arrived Friday at Alderwood mall and arrives Saturday in Everett.

Better plan ahead. Reservations are required for free and photo visits. No lines allowed.

New restrictions issued last Sunday by Gov. Jay Inslee limit retail capacity to 25% occupancy. The Snohomish Health District recommends that Santa follow all safety guidelines and be “preferably outside.”

At Everett Mall, “Santa will be contactless, and will look over guests from his sleigh at 6 feet away for photos,” Chavez said. Same rules apply for the mall’s Paws with Cause Pet Nights with Santa on Nov. 25 and Dec. 3 and 10.

Have your list at the ready. The set must be sanitized between visits, which will be timed.

“Santa is re-imagined,” said Hillard Viydo, owner of Arthur & Associates, which provides holiday characters to Everett Mall and shopping centers in the Seattle area.

Viydo, whose family has run the business since 1962, couldn’t imagine not having Santa this year.

“We canceled the Easter Bunny,” he said. “Boy, was he mad.”

George Smith wears a photo mask of his face to go with his Santa outfit so he will look as real as possible when he arrives Saturday at Everett Mall. His employer, Arthur and Associates, made personalized masks for the 30 Santas staffing their venues in Western Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

George Smith wears a photo mask of his face to go with his Santa outfit so he will look as real as possible when he arrives Saturday at Everett Mall. His employer, Arthur and Associates, made personalized masks for the 30 Santas staffing their venues in Western Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

In April, many hoped the virus would be contained by winter.

Far from it. Cases are surging here and nationwide.

Viydo said most of his company’s troop of 30 Santas are back on the beat this year. Only three declined for health reasons.

The Santas are getting pre-season COVID tests. Temperature checks will be done daily.

Masks are mandatory all around. Everett Mall purchased 1,000 holiday masks to give to guests wanting a festive look.

Viydo’s company made personalized photo facial masks for each Santa to add a realistic touch. Or they can wear a red mask, also provided.

George Smith, 71, a retired Boeing machinist, modeled his photo mask for this story. He’s still working on how not to fog the wire-rimmed bifocals he wears when in costume.

Smith has been a Santa at Everett Mall for a dozen years. Other gigs are at events and charity causes. One time a guy hired him to be on hand while he popped the question to his girlfriend.

Smith goes to Santa conventions and is a member of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas.

His beard is real, but not his belly. In the summer, he wears a Santa jersey when he rides his bike from Seattle to Portland.

“I’m a fit Santa,” Smith said.

Reservations for Alderwood mall Santa visits can be made online or onsite.

“Visits and photos with Santa Claus are some of the most beloved and sacred traditions of the year,” Rachel Wille, mall corporate spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “Our hope is that by continuing to offer the opportunity to carry out these traditions, we will not only help spread the joy of the holidays, but bring a sense of normalcy to the communities in which we operate.”

Santa will be distanced behind a plastic partition for photos only at EverettSanta.com, a longtime seasonal family business. This year his toy shop studio will be at 5626 Evergreen Way.

It almost didn’t happen.

“We were going to pull the plug after 20 years,” owner Kylie Hawkins said. “I talked to about 10 different Santas before we got one. He will be the real deal.”

Starting Saturday, visits will be limited to one family at a time and all must live in the same household. Customers will be screened in the car. Masks are required all around.

“We normally see about 1,600 to 2,000 families and we’re only seeing 400 this year,” Hawkins said.

Some Santas are working from ho-ho-ho-home.

JingleRing’s virtual Santa platform offers visits with a North Pole St. Nick in a Zoom-type format or a personalized pre-recorded message. It doesn’t require a trip to the mall for the kid or Santa.

And of course the old-fashioned letter to Santa is a postage stamp away.

The town of Santa Claus, Indiana, pop. 2,400, gets about 25,000 letters to Santa every year. The residents take it seriously. Volunteers read and answer every letter, returned with a Santa Claus postmark.

Send letters to P.O. Box 1, Santa Claus, IN 47579.

Santa Claus is the real name of the town in the southern tip of the state, an hour from my Hoosier hometown. I’ve been there many times.

Put it on your bucket list. It’s worth the trip.

The town has streets with names such as Donner and Blitzen, a Lake Rudolph campground, and a Holiday World theme park with world-class roller coasters. It’s home to Santa Claus Cemetery, named after the town, not dead Santas.

Because Santa is immortal.

Andrea Brown: abrown@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3443. Twitter @reporterbrown.

The story of Santa photos

Seattle is often credited as the place where the tradition of department store photos with Santa started.

The first store to have a Santa was in Massachusetts in 1890. But the pictures are linked to Art “Happy” French, a Seattle Post-Intelligencer photographer who was known to be a bit of a gruff, hence the ironic nickname.

In 1943, while at his newsroom desk, he saw kids climbing into Santa’s lap at the store across the street, the Frederick & Nelson department store at Sixth Avenue and Pine Street.

He got an idea how to supplement his modest newspaper salary.

During the 1944 Christmas season, he took off from work to take portraits of tots with Santa. At $1 a pop, he made a bunch of money, so French, now happy, did it again in 1945.

In 1946, Time magazine profiled French and his Santa biz. The practice spread around the country.

French quit his newspaper job to take holiday photos with Santa and the Easter Bunny at Frederick’s flagship store and other locations around Puget Sound.

When French died in 1962, photographer Ken Viydo and his wife, Hazel, took over the business, Arthur & Associates, that’s now run by their son, Hillard.

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