116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
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CEDAR RAPIDS — He sees you when you’re sleeping and he knows when you’re awake. But this year, Santa Claus also will need to know how many attendees you plan to have at your holiday party and whether they’ll be wearing masks.
It’s the second holiday season for local Santas in the pandemic. And while some circumstances have changed, the job hasn’t gotten much easier as each Kriss Kringle navigates which protocols will carry over from last year and which will be left behind in a partially vaccinated world.
Last year, Santas like Jacob Cowger of Cedar Rapids had to get creative to keep up the holiday spirit. Cowger, owner of Balloons Etc & The Costume Emporium, built a bench with plexiglass barriers so children could sit near him and speak through an intercom.
Whether he’ll lug the heavy contraption from event to event this year is up in the air, he said — left to the discretion of the ones booking his appearances.
“I want to be safe, but I want to keep that magic alive too,” Cowger said. “But Santa’s got to watch out for (COVID-19,) too.”
About two out of three people in Linn and Johnson counties are vaccinated. But new cases continue to increase to concerning levels and positivity rates are again in the double digits. Meanwhile, masks this year are a less common sight than they were last holiday season.
Cowger remains concerned, but said modifications make it hard to be Santa. He’s been getting into the red suit for over 20 years.
“You take away a lot of the personal touch, and that sweeps away a lot of the magic, unfortunately,” he said. “I see Santa as magical and invincible. (Some COVID protocols) take away that magic of him.”
Last year, he missed the close interactions with children that bring him back in costume year after year — talking to them up close and telling them stories about his reindeer. But stories from some children, divulged as they recited their Christmas wishes, reminded him of the ever-present danger for many.
“One kid told me their grandpa was in the hospital with COVID and he just wanted to see him get better,” Cowger said. “That kind of chokes you up. There’s not a whole lot you can say in that moment to make it better.”
But with a twinkle in his eye, Santa always finds a way to make children laugh, even for just a moment, to take their mind off what’s actually happening in their lives.
Though Cowger still feels the pandemic isn’t yet past, he said that isolation isn’t an option anymore.
This year, his vaccination has made him more comfortable to accept more bookings, which are picking up the pace earlier than usual. Corporate bookings are again asking him to mingle with the crowd.
“I think it’s a fantastic idea, but I’ll be prepared with a face shield or mask of some sort,” Cowger said.
All of his bookings so far this year have asked him for the traditional Santa format with a large chair where people can visit him. Whether he will allow children in his lap is undecided, for now. He may have them visit from nearby, instead.
Video visits, a popular option last year, will still be available, but no one has taken him up on them yet this season.
Taking extra precautions
Other Santas remain much more cautious and are keeping their distance as much as possible.
“If we’re taking photos with Santa, we’re going to take extra precautions,” said Chad Canfield, who has worked as Santa for over five years. “From a distance, we’re happy to keep the masks off.”
Last year, he went from booking two or three gigs per week to doing one or two small public appearances and mostly online visits. Pops at the Paramount, one of his largest appearances, was canceled last year.
This year, Canfield is cautiously resuming some appearances, screening them carefully according to his risk tolerance. He will be available in the Opus Concert Cafe before this year’s Pops at the Paramount, which requires masks.
“COVID is still very rampant. It’s one of those things that is on our mind,” he said. “I’m very paranoid about COVID.”
Even vaccinated, he has seen relatives with breakthrough infections, tempering his excitement to get “back to normal.” But being up close and personal is part of expectations for Santa, COVID or not.
“That’s the nature of the beast,” he said. “People sit on your lap and want to get up close and want to tell you what they want for Christmas.”
Last year, one creative workaround that maintained the magic of Santa for children was sneaking behind a house with a bag of presents, waving through the window and disappearing into the night.
Canfield said interest in booking Santa is starting much earlier than in pre-pandemic years and is on track to match 2019 demand. Despite that, Canfield will be avoiding certain crowded events and take into consideration social distancing, the size of the venue and whether attendees want photos in Santa’s lap.
Wearing a mask and seeing others wear theirs makes him feel significantly safer in those situations. Canfield said his beard is thick enough to almost act as a mask on its own — though the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t weighed in on Santa beards as masks, yet.
This year’s bookings for Canfield will remain mostly private, family gatherings. One thing he continues to offer is the chance for children to catch him in the act of delivering presents on Christmas Eve.
Though he considered quitting his seasonal job, the joy he sees in children year after year is the reason he continues.
“You see the magic you create in a family and hear the feedback, and you just realize how big of an impact you make on the child’s beliefs in Santa, miracles and magic,” he said. “I don’t want to disappoint the kids. It’s fun creating magic.”
As he grooms his beard and dyes his eyebrows white again, he commits to another year of keeping the joy of Christmas alive, despite his own anxieties.
Find a live tree for Santa to place presents under at these local farms this holiday season.
Kacena Family Tree Farm
Where: 2510 55th St., Vinton
Contact: (319) 350-2113, kacenafarms.com
BLACK HAWK COUNTY
Kriss Kringle’s Trees
Where: 5220 W. Bennington Rd., Cedar Falls
Contact: (319) 277-8596, facebook.com/kriskringlecedarfalls
When: Nov. 26 to Dec. 10 or until sold out
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. opening day and weekends; 1 to 5 p.m. weekdays
Wapsie Pines Christmas tree Farm at Fairbank
Where: 2778 Whitetail Ave., Fairbank
Contact: (319) 638-7931, wapsiepinestreefarm.com
When: Opens Nov. 26 to Dec. 12.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends and opening day, 1 to 5 p.m. weekdays
Kelly Tree Farm
Where: 1045 Stone Mill Rd., Tipton
Contact: (563) 210-6300, kellytreefarm.com/christmas-trees
When: Open one day only, Nov. 26, from 9 a.m. until sold out.
Handley’s Holiday Hillside Inc.
Where: 1731 White Oak Ave. NE, Solon
Contact: (319) 624-3646, facebook.com/handleysholidayhillside
When: Nov. 26 and Saturdays and Sundays in December until sold out.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
A & A Christmas tree Farm
Where: 14201 170th Ave., Monticello
Contact: (319) 481-7370, aachristmastree.com
When: Nov. 26 and every weekend up to Christmas
Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Bappe’s Holiday Pines Tree Farm
Where: 1846 Whitetail Rd., Decorah
Contact: (563) 382-2125, facebook.com/HolidayPinesTreeFarm
When: Nov. 26 to Dec. 12
Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays
Cedar’s Edge Evergreen Market
Where: 2188 Ivanhoe Rd., Ely
Contact: (319) 361-7967, cedarsedgemarket.com
When: Nov. 26 until sold out.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 1 to 6 p.m. Sunday to Thursday.
Hoffman Tree Farm
Where: 9409 C Ave., Marion
Contact: (319) 377-0977, hoffmantreefarm.com
When: Nov. 26 until sold out. Fields will be open for cutting Thanksgiving weekend.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday to Sunday, 3:30 to 7 p.m. Monday to Thursday
Wickiup Hill Tree Farm
Where: Wickiup Hill Road, Toddville
Contact: (319) 361-9634, wickiup-hill-tree-farm.business.site
When: Nov. 26 to Dec. 5 or until sold out.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 27 to 28; 1 to 5 p.m. Nov. 29 to Dec. 3; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 4 and 5 if there are any trees left.
Honey Creek Timbers
Where: 1501 L Ave., Morning Sun
Contact: (319) 868-7647, honeycreektimbers.com
When: Starting Nov. 20.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Comments: (319) 398-8340; email@example.com