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The Santa who sounded the alarm

Art Hoffman has visited children and families for four decades as Santa. (Michael Blackshire/For The Washington Post )
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Art Hoffman broke out the Santa suit early this year.

It was April, his Louisville neighborhood quiet in the shock of the first coronavirus lockdowns. He strolled from house to house holding up a sign: “Hello and Love from Santa.” He waved at the delighted kids — always from a distance Santa Claus doesn’t usually keep.

The pandemic was warping everyone’s sense of time, but that wasn’t the only reason for Hoffman’s out-of-season appearance. Even then, he was growing convinced that a typical Christmas would be unlikely in 2020. He had been performing as Santa for 45 years, but he had also spent years working in public health. And he feared the worst was yet to come.

“SANTA GOES VIRAL,” Hoffman, 73, titled a message on the social network Nextdoor on April 2, around the same time he reached for the red suit with white trim. Concerned that everyone’s favorite holiday visitor could spread more than just cheer, he implored his neighbors to plan ahead for a “revamped” holiday. “Santa wants you to think ‘outside the chimney’ as it were,” he wrote.

So began Hoffman’s months-long mission to sound the alarm about what he considered a looming Christmas crisis — a campaign that became part of a bitter brawl inside the sprawling community of professional and volunteer Santas.

Why health officials are terrified of a pandemic Christmas

By now it has become obvious that the most wonderful time of the year — like every other time of this dreary, lost year — is destined to be upended by the virus. Santas are greeting children through plastic bubbles, behind plexiglass dividers and, of course, via Zoom.

Yet for months, as Americans held out hope things might be better by Easter, then Memorial Day, then summertime, then fall, Hoffman’s position was a controversial one. A Christmas without kids on Santa’s lap seemed unthinkable to many.

Including more than a few Santas.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused Santa to get creative and swap mall visits for virtual, digital chats with children and families all over the world. (Video: Brittany Shammas/The Washington Post, Photo: Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

Within the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas (IBRBS), factions broke out among the 2,000 or so Mr. and Mrs. Clauses who were allowed to join as full-fledged members following a 2016 vote. As the group’s president, Stephen Arnold, tells it, some members thought the virus wasn’t a big deal. Others thought it was serious but manageable with the proper precautions. A third camp thought just going outside constituted a life-threatening risk. All of them were fighting with each other, mostly in a private Facebook group.

“I saw some posts even yesterday — ‘How dare you think that you can go out and do a regular family photo shoot?’” said Arnold, a.k.a. “Fabled Santa,” of Knoxville, Tenn., adding that “everybody has their own opinion, and they’re not shy about it in many cases.”

At one point, after debate raged over whether to cancel a sold-out Claus convention in September, the group’s usually cheery mailers carried references to “fear-mongering” and “attempts to influence, manipulate, dissuade, and intimidate others.”

One board member described seeing “our President sweat candy canes.” Hoffman, who had argued forcefully for calling off the convention, wondered huffily if the fearmongering bit was aimed at him.

All the divisiveness of the pandemic — even the Santa community wasn’t exempt from it.

“We’re like America,” Hoffman said. “We’re as fractured and as split. The difference is that we’re Santa Claus. We’re supposed to be above all this. But we can’t be, because we’re human beings.”

Dozens of children went to see Santa. He may have exposed them to the coronavirus.

The legend of Santa Claus, as any good Christmas performer can tell you, dates back more than a thousand years. But the business of Santa has perhaps never been bigger.

The scores who wear bespoke red suits are part of a thriving subculture complete with its own lingo, customs and even oaths. There are department store Santas, Hollywood Santas and performing Santas. There are elves and Santa’s helpers and Mrs. Clauses, who in recent years have come into their own as solo performers.

Most take on the job after retirement from a huge range of careers, drawn to the promise of making children’s days and soaking up the Christmas spirit.

“This is more of a calling,” said Robert Seutter, or “Santa True,” of West Lake Village, Calif. “The symbology and the power of the role is iconic.”

It’s generally a merry bunch. The Santas trade beard-bleaching tips, ask after each other’s Mrs. Clauses, host training sessions on ho-ho-ho-ing and compare custom belts. Regional Santas have social outings — sometimes in “casual Santa” attire.

But the Santa world isn’t always nice. Asked about the difference between the IBRBS and a rival group, the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas (FORBS), “Fabled Santa” Arnold paused.

“How much of the history,” he asked, “do you know of the Santa Wars and everything?”

By that, the IBRBS president meant a 2009 power struggle that tore apart an earlier Santa organization, the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas. Santas pointed fingers at Santas, slinging allegations of profiteering and conduct not befitting of Kriss Kringle. In the end, the group was no more, and others, like FORBS and IBRBS, rose in its place.

Hoffman’s time in this unusual fraternity dates to the mid-1970s. Back then, he wore a fake beard, making him what the real beard-obsessed industry would call a “designer bearded” or “theatrically bearded” Santa. A photo from the era shows him grinning behind a mass of white curls, his own dark hair peeking out.

When he wasn’t Saint Nicholas, he was a public health educator at entities such as the New Mexico Department of Health, trying to wake Americans up to the importance of seat belts and the dangers of smoking. In one unusual gambit, he strapped a skeleton to the back of a tandem bike to raise awareness of tobacco deaths. He also wrote what he proudly calls the world’s first antismoking novel. (It is also, in all likelihood, the world’s only antismoking novel.)

These days Hoffman is retired, leaving more time for appearances as “Santa Art” at hospitals, schools, churches and homes.

And he has grown into the Santa look: He joined the IBRBS after getting the real beard down, although as his wife, Martha, points out, “He’s not a big, fat happy one.”

He’s more of a tall and slender Santa. When the kids ask about this, he has a ready reply: Mrs. Claus makes sure he eats right.

For Hoffman, so many years doubling as Saint Nick means it can be hard to break character.

“Sometimes I may fall back into my Santa role,” he told a reporter. And then: “Ho ho ho!”

This year wasn’t the first that Hoffman publicly fretted about germs. In a 2015 column in the IBRBS newsletter headlined “Golden Halo vs. Patient Zero,” Hoffman had asked: “Am I the only mall Santa who worries more these days about the ‘Hazmat of the Lap?’”

Around that time, a measles outbreak had started in Disneyland and spread in California and beyond. Alarmed, Hoffman called for Santas to use hand sanitizer and urged parents to keep sick children home.

“In the years to come,” he wrote, in an oddly prescient part, “I can actually envision ‘Photos With Santa’ morphing into ‘Photo shop with Santa’ where children won’t even be allowed to sit on our knees.”

As coronavirus cases cropped up across the country this spring, Hoffman saw his prediction coming true. He collected the “outside the chimney” ideas dreamed up by his neighbors: Santa taking a sleigh ride through neighborhoods, chatting with kids on FaceTime, posing for photos from outside a window.

He emailed IBRBS leaders, pressing them to cancel the September convention that was supposed to draw 600 Santas to an Atlanta hotel. This time, more wouldn’t mean merrier.

Santa Claus is coming to town. Try not to infect him.

If the group went ahead with the event, Hoffman wrote, he worried “that one or more of our members will be taking that ‘final sleigh ride’ before the Christmas season is even concluded.’”

As for who he felt bore responsibility for the growing U.S. caseload, Hoffman didn’t shy from saying. President Trump, he wrote, was prioritizing the economy over people’s lives and failing to demonstrate strong leadership.

He added that he had reread the organization’s “Santa Claus Oath” and noted: “Unless you have ignored the past three years of his presidency, it’s pretty safe to say he wouldn’t make much of a Santa Claus.”

IBRBS leaders responded that Santas felt strongly on both sides, adding that they were doing everything they could to make sure the convention was safe.

“Our policy in the general Santa community is don’t be political, don’t politicize Santa,” Arnold, the IBRBS president, said. “Santa lives at the North Pole. He’s not in America.”

Hoffman eventually dropped his membership.

With a pandemic raging and Americans sharply divided over how to respond, it wouldn’t be the only time politics seeped in. Anxiety was running high — some Santas worried about finances, others about health. After all, being older and heavier is practically in the job description, as is close contact with children.

A lot of Santas “were very concerned there’d be nothing” this year, Arnold said. Others seemed to be “intimidating people to not participate in Christmas at all.”

There were angry emails and social media comments about the conference, which had been postponed to September from April in hopes the situation would improve. Complicating things, the Santas had an pricey contract with the hotel.

By July, with the pandemic still not under control, the organization rescheduled the conference to 2022.

Hoffman, convinced the event might be “a mini Sturgis Motorcycle Rally” that could send superspreading Santas across the country, breathed a sigh of relief.

How the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally may have spread coronavirus across the Upper Midwest

The question of what would happen at Christmas, though, remained. Would Santa Claus still come to town?

The answer became clear over the fall: “Almost all of us,” Arnold said, “are seeing that no one wants to have a year without Christmas.”

With a wink, some officials declared Santa an essential worker. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, assured USA Today that the Santa who circles the globe to deliver presents on Christmas has “a lot of good innate immunity.”

But in at least one case, Hoffman’s Santa-is-a-vector warning seems to have proven prophetic: Officials in a rural Georgia community said this week that a Santa Claus performer had tested positive for the virus days after visiting — partly maskless — with dozens of children.

“It’s discouraging,” Hoffman said of the Georgia news. “I’m still trying to get through the season with a happy face because I’m Santa, but it’s discouraging. The line that everybody’s been using lately, which is ‘it didn’t have to be this bad,’ is something I think about every day.”

Plenty of other Santas have mostly kept visits to online, jury-rigging basement studios and Zooming into living rooms near and far. Pat Lense, or “Cincy Santa,” saw his visits go up 220 percent. At Santa’s age (around 1,750 years old), “that’s a lot of work,” he joked.

A self-described “old fart,” Hoffman hasn’t joined Lense and the other Santas on Zoom. Actually, he hasn’t even set up an account.

He turned down indoor Santa sessions and has just a handful of outdoor visits — where he’ll wear a mask and face shield — on the calendar. Normally, this would be his busiest time of the year and he would be packing a lunch for days full of back-to-back appearances.

Santas have a rule against making promises. But maybe next Christmas.