CALGARY — For Santa sightings this holiday season, don't look for a sleigh soaring across the sky.
Look for a revamped food truck cruising the streets.
Calgary-based Santa School, which trains aspiring St. Nicks and books them for events, had to figure out a way to make visits fun and meaningful for children while keeping a safe distance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"One of the things that we discovered through the pandemic is that people still wanted normal and they still wanted to have fun experiences and experiences with their families and with their friends," said Jennifer Andrews, the dean of Santa School.
"But they weren't as comfortable doing it in a traditional setting."
In addition to Santa School, Andrews and her husband, Jeremy, run the Family Squeezed Lemonade food truck business. They took part in pandemic-safe, drive-thru food truck events this summer.
"If we can do it with food trucks, we've got to be able to do it with Santa," said Jeremy Andrews, who calls himself the Santa School "dean's assistant" and transforms into Santa from time to time.
Santa School has created an open-air cosy Christmas scene at the back of a truck that can travel to homes and businesses.
There'll be no sitting on Santa's knee, but he can sit in a chair and read stories to kids, hear their wishes and pose for photos from a two-metre distance.
"It's basically Santa's living room on wheels," said Jennifer Andrews.
In an ordinary year, Santa School holds two-day courses in which would-be Santas from around the world learn how to develop their characters, interact with children, perfect their look and project their "ho ho hos" in just the right way.
The idea is that Santa can't be everywhere at once, so he needs a team of regional representatives.
The usual Santa classes, which are highly interactive and include sessions with acting, dancing and singing teachers, didn't go ahead this fall. Many participants are older men, who are at higher risk of getting severely sick from COVID-19.
"That doesn't seem like a very responsible thing to do right now, to have people flying in from all over the world, getting together," said Jeremy Andrews, adding he and his wife are still available for remote one-on-one chats if a Santa needs some pointers.
He said it's been a brutal year for small business owners and very little has been working in their favour.
"So it's time for us to look at our business and think, 'I'm not going away. I'm not going to stop.'
"What can we do that will make this work? What can we do that will keep some Santas employed? What can we do ... to keep some families and some children happy and all of them safe?"
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 22, 2020.
Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press