The Mall at Green Hills in Nashville is still piping in Christmas music, and Santa is in the building.
But there’s no line this year, because families just show up for their time slot. And kids don’t sit on Santa’s lap. Instead, they perch on boxes more than 6 feet away.
During one recent visit, Santa started out with the familiar question: “What do you want Santa Claus to bring you for Christmas?”
The answer was murmured through a mandatory mask, which meant that Santa — who also goes by the name Keith Auston — had trouble hearing. This is a common issue, he confessed. Eventually, he found a workaround.
“Tell you what, you can let your mother know, and she can let me know,” he said.
‘It’s Closer To Normal’
This Santa set is about more than just Santa. It’s also about creating a sense of normalcy during a year of upheaval — especially for indoor shopping centers.
Inside the Mall at Green Hills, where several storefronts have been papered over, shoppers who come “maybe are a little more intentional,” said Norah Buikstra, the mall’s general manager. “They have a shop or two in mind that they’re going to visit, and they may spend a little less time in the mall on average.”
So Buikstra said she’s proud of how many stores have made it to this holiday season.
“We have been through a lot, and it has been very challenging, and yet, here we are,” she said.
When she and her staff discussed what to do about Santa, they did consider pausing the in-person tradition, she said. But ultimately, they decided it served a purpose.
“I think it helps people to have this experience that’s maybe not exactly like normal, but it’s closer to normal,” she said.
Malls across the city secured the blessing of the Nashville health department for their Santa sets, according to a department spokesman.
Santa Gone Virtual
But as with so many other holidays this year, the constraints of the pandemic are forcing innovation.
Some malls have put Santa behind plexiglass to decrease risk. Macy’s did away with in-person Santas altogether. And Cherry Hill Programs, which runs in-person Christmas sets at hundreds of shopping centers — including the one at the Mall at Green Hills — now also offers video calls as an alternative.
That’s something the site VisitWithSanta.com has been doing for several years, long before the pandemic made video calls an entrenched part of life.
“We’re building a new tradition,” said Fred Lueck, the company’s CEO. (CEO, he says, stands for “Chief Elf Organizer.”) “This isn’t to replace the chair. This isn’t to replace Santa in a parade.”
Still, as fewer families are visiting him in the mall this year, VisitWithSanta’s business has boomed. Lueck said they’ve hired twice as many Santas as last year, and demand for virtual visits has tripled. (Lueck, for one, eschews the word “virtual” to describe his business: “There’s no computer graphics, there’s no virtual anything. It’s a person-to-person chat.”)
Even when more people feel comfortable visiting malls in person again, Lueck is optimistic about the demand for direct video calls with the magical North Pole. “A chair Santa does not equal a Santa who can sit and talk with your family for a long period of time,” he said.