Santa Claus waves from his socially distanced seat at the Cherry Hill Programs set at the Imperial Valley Mall in El Centro on Tuesday, Dec. 15. Due to COVID-19, children are asked to sit at least six feet in front of Santa for a photo rather than next to him, as has been the tradition. | CORISSA IBARRA
While all the girls and boys were fast asleep on Christmas Eve, wondering if Santa would drop something under their tree, Jake woke up to find Rudolph’s red nose sniffing at his toes.
Where Rudolph is, so is Santa, thought Jake. So, he snuck out to the living room to see if the milk and cookies he placed on the table for Santa were still there.
An ornament started rolling toward him. “Is Santa under the tree, could it be?” he wondered. To his surprise, it was an elf: big ears, rosy cheeks, round nose, and striped candy cane leggings. The masked elf was at a six-foot distance from Jake.
And then Jake awoke, upset that he didn’t meet Santa, even if it was only a dream. Yet he was happy to see they were COVID-compliant!
EL CENTRO — COVID might just be changing the things that matter most to children during this Christmas season. Even the little ones recognize that Christmas is not all about receiving gifts.
“Of all the gifts, joy and family are the best presents,” said 6-year-old Giawna Aguirre, who met with “Santa Claus” in early December at the Imperial Valley Mall in El Centro to tell him what she wanted for Christmas … at a safe distance, of course.
Santa is part of the scenery for Cherry Hill Programs’ annual mall set-up, where he is available for socially distanced photo sessions for a fee through Christmas Eve, Dec. 24.
As people pass his display, Santa shouts, “Merry Christmas, ho, ho, ho!” as he waves to all. One would think he is the real deal, considering the talk, look, beard, and physique is reminiscent of the Santa we all love. When asked what his name is and where he is from, he said, “I am Santa Claus and come from the North Pole.”
This St. Nick is not giving up his real identity. Fair enough. We’ll play along.
The Imperial Valley is fortunate to have Santa despite the pandemic. COVID hasn’t affected us, Santa said.
“Due to the extreme cold at the North Pole, we don’t have a whole lot of problems with diseases and germs, although we do have a day of cleaning and shining regime,” he said.
Most kids are on their best behavior this time of the year because they don’t want to be on Santa’s naughty list. Santa is prepared to answer all the questions asked of him by the girls and boys, one of which does include, “Am I on the naughty list?”
Yet Giawna — the 6-year-old from the start of this tale — only wanted to know, “What do reindeers eat?”
“I take hay and oats and mix in crunched candy canes for the reindeers,” Santa said.
“They (the reindeer) are even more happier and extremely energetic to jump even higher to take Santa high up to the sky where we have to travel,” Santa said, with a chuckle.
What Are the Elves and Reindeer Up To?
“My elves are on a schedule,” Santa informed. “First thing in the morning, they have safety training. … We make toys safely because they mean fun. Second thing, they do is calisthenics, because I don’t want anyone to get hurt. …
“So, that is what the elves are doing right now … and taking care of the reindeers, feeding them, making sure they are OK, making sure their teeth are clean. Happy reindeer are fun reindeer,” he said.
The elves’ hard work does not go unnoticed, Santa said. “Every Thursday, Mrs. Claus makes a snickerdoodle party for the elves and the reindeers. We get together, laugh, cry, and it is my little reward for the hard work they do.”
According to The Saturday Evening Post, eight reindeer (Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen) first appeared in the poem “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” published anonymously on Dec. 23, 1823, in a newspaper in Troy, N.Y. The poem was then republished in papers across America under the title, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” The Saturday Evening Post also printed the poem in its Jan. 7, 1826, edition.
Rudolph came along in 1939 as part of a Montgomery Ward Christmas promotion. In 1949, Rudolph became even more popular when Gene Autry recorded the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The story goes that Santa uses Rudolph as a lamp to guide his sleigh.
A Friendly Chat with Santa
For 1,750 years, Santa has been granting the Christmas wishes of boys and girls of all ages. “Everybody are young people to me,” the mall Santa said.
But why does Santa look like he is in his 70s? Legend has it that when Santa was 73 years old, Mrs. Claus discovered a magical secret ingredient that she started putting in his favorite cookies and milkshakes; neither of them have aged at all since. This also keeps the elves and the reindeers from aging.
For all those years, children all over the world have put aside milk and cookies so that Santa can enjoy a quick snack when he drops off their gifts.
What are the top requests for gifts?
“I’m finding out that young ladies are still in love with their Barbies and that young men love their PlayStations, or even just computers, or techi stuff in general … with the Pokémon pulling a very close third. Ho, ho, ho,” laughs Santa. “I get a lot of requests for toys, and I tell them as long as they don’t mind it being made of wood.”
When asked what he desires for the world this year, the mall Santa said, “I just wish for everybody to wake up one day and realize that we are all friends no matter what — not enemies. It is not up to me what you are, what you believe, I just want to be your friend.”
He emphasized the joy of giving and reiterated that it is better to give than to receive. Everyone can make a difference by sharing an act of kindness.
As you might have already guessed, taking a photo with Santa this year is markedly different due to COVID.
Children such as Giawna must sit on a decorated red bench six feet in front of Santa, who is seated next to a Christmas tree and surrounded by large Christmas gifts.
Each photo session (pre-registration required) with Santa takes about 15 minutes, as the photographer takes about two to three poses, depending on the package purchased. Within a few minutes, customers receive their photo package.
Kids can drop off their letters or cards in the Santa mailbox when a photo session is not taking place.
“Every day I open the letters in the mailbox and then give them to my elves for processing,” Santa said.
This year’s “Santa” is quite special, with a real twinkle in his eye.
“He’s the jolliest of them all; really captures the kids’ attention,” said Alicia Swain, general manager of the Imperial Valley Mall.
Mandissa Borbon, sales associate with Cherry Hill Programs, noted the company has two main photo seasons during the year, the Easter setup and the Santa set. Due to COVID, the Easter set was cancelled earlier this year.
“This year, we were able to open up (the Santa set), but with new rules and regulations,” Borbon stated.
A Santa proxy took the time out of his busy schedule this holiday season to whisk around the spread-out neighborhoods of the city of Imperial on Monday night, Dec. 14, to being a little Christmas cheer to residents missing the annual city events cancelled in the wake of the pandemic.
Atop an Imperial County Fire Department ladder truck, with a brightly lit snowman by his side, Santa waved to Imperial residents lining the streets of the city center of old Imperial, and all points north and south in the new housing subdivisions.
Jolly Ol’ St. Nick’s caravan followed a virtual tree-lighting ceremony that featured, among other things, then-Mayor Pro Tem Karin Eugenio reading “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” via Facebook Live and Christmas songs performed by duo “Kelly and Lorenzo.”