Iowa Santas prepare for socially distanced, virtual visits this pandemic holiday season

Balloons Etc. owner Jacob Cower and his wife Kimberly pose for a photo together dressed as Santa Claus and Jingle Belle
Balloons Etc. owner Jacob Cower and his wife Kimberly pose for a photo together dressed as Santa Claus and Jingle Belle the Elf across from the store in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

Jacob Cowger has donned a red Santa suit and fluffy white beard since he was a teenager, but this is the first year he’s added a face shield and mask to his ensemble. He’s also having a special bench with a plastic partition built, so children can sit next to him to share their Christmas wishes, instead of on his lap.

He’s worried about safety during the coronavirus pandemic, but he’s also determined to keep the joy in the holiday season. “The hard part is trying to keep the magic alive,” he said.

Cowger owns Balloons, Etc. & the Costume Emporium in downtown Cedar Rapids with his wife Kimberly — who also dresses as the elf Jingle Belle. Once a year he bleaches his hair white, and the couple suit up to bring a little Christmas spirit to area children. They do Santa visits at area Hy-Vees and Bass Pro Shops, as well as private appearances.

Cowger said he’s not sure how many visits he will have booked as Santa this year, but he’s determined to keep them going.

He started doing Santa visits when he was around age 14, when a friend of his who played Santa got sick on Christmas Eve and needed someone to fill in.

“I was maybe 100 pounds soaking wet, so they duct-taped pillows to me, four or five at least to plump me up to get me into this thing,” he said. “I went running across First Avenue, got across the street and stumbled and had so many pillows I couldn’t get back up. I finally rolled and got myself back up, got in the house and had a great time. I was so excited, so pumped, I just continued on doing it.”

He said almost as much as the virus, he’s apprehensive about what children might tell him. They often confide in Santa, he said, when they share their wish list.

“I’m anxious to see what’s said by kids and how to work through those things. Sometimes it’s pretty hard to handle,” he said.

“You get those hard things like mommy or daddy can’t make it for Christmas, or they lost somebody they love. Those are always the ones that tug on the heart the hardest. We just do our part as much as we can.”

He’s not the only Santa trying to keep the tradition going, with some adaptations for the realities of 2020. Many places are offering socially distanced or virtual options for Santa visits this year.

One of those is Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City, where a Zoom Santa party sold out quickly. However, people can still purchase a personalized letter from Santa and link to a video of him reading “A Night Before Christmas.” That option is $5 and available at

“Last year was our first brunch with Santa, and it was so successful,” Hancher Executive Director Chuck Swanson said. “This year our feeling was everybody needs this even more than they did last year. But we wanted to do something in a safe way, for the families and Santa, too ... We are just trying to bring some joy and comfort during this crazy time.”

In Marion, Santa and Mrs. Claus will participate in a “Santa Wave” on Dec. 4. The jolly couple will ride in a red sleigh, courtesy of the Marion Fire Department, and travel three residential routes, waving at residents, beginning at 5:30 p.m., with a stop for Marion’s Peace Tree lighting at 6 p.m. Route maps are at

At Coral Ridge Mall in Coralville, Santa still is appearing for photos with children, but reservations are required, and the visit will be socially distanced, with masks required per state guidelines. The mall also has virtual visit options, with live video visits with Santa, virtual story hour and prerecorded video options. People can make reservations and learn more about both in person and virtual visits at

Lindale Mall also has in person, socially distanced Santa visits available, along with virtual visit options. People can learn more at

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