In a Year of Cancellations, Santa and His Elves Carry On
Volunteers continue their tradition of delivering joy to others in Ouray despite the pandemic.
On Christmas Eve, five of Santa’s helpers will don their red velvet suits and adjust their long, fake white beards, smoothing out the tangles before pulling on their hats.
Outside the Elks Lodge in Ouray, they’ll load up their Jeeps and trucks with brown paper bags stuffed with toys and candy, and fan out across the county, winding through narrow streets in town and bumping down icy dirt roads, on their way to surprise children with a visit from the jolly old elf.
In a year defined by cancelations and isolation amid the pandemic, the Santas and their elves will make personal visits, hopping out of the cars to honk, wave and deliver as much joy as they can from a safe distance.
The Ouray Elks Lodge has sent members dressed as Santa out delivering gifts since 1928, and while the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to change plans this year, it couldn’t cancel them.
Instead of greeting children inside, posing for pictures and joining family gatherings, the five Santas and their elves, or drivers, will be doing contactless drop offs for the three dozen families who signed up for deliveries.
“They’ll get to the house and honk, the kids will come out, and Santa will wave,” organizer Shelly Kuhlman said. They’ll leave paper bags of toys and candy on the porch for the kids to pick up on their own.
“It’s cool to be able to see the kids and the families and to spread a little cheer in our community. There’s not a whole heck of a lot of it in the world,” said Don Wild, who will play Santa for the third time this year. “Even just going up to the porch is better than nothing.”
The Elks aren’t the only ones modifying their Santa plans this year. When Heather Smith began planning a meet-and-greet with Mr. Claus at O’Toys in Ouray, she had to find a way to keep COVID-compliant. The traditional sitting on Santa’s lap wasn’t going to work.
The solution was a socially-distant interaction. John Hart, dressed in the classic red suit with a matching red mask, sat in a chair with a row of large, wrapped presents in front of him. On the other side of the presents, Smith set two wooden benches for kids to sit on, allowing for photo opportunities and a conversation with Santa while maintaining the necessary spacing.
Smith said her biggest concern was handling a crowd in the store, but heavy snowfall kept people inside for much of the afternoon. The families who came by the shop seemed unfazed by the unusual setup.
Atticus Fedel, 6, said he’d already had a Zoom call with Santa, so he didn’t have much to say when he told Santa he wanted Legos for Christmas. He and his sister, Eliana, perched on the bench in front of Santa as they posed for a picture.
Their mother, Alyssa Fedel, said they’d planned the virtual meeting with Santa, unsure if an in-person interaction would be possible this year.
A few reluctant toddlers were too scared to approach, and Hart momentarily removed his mask to smile at one, though that wasn’t enough to quell any fears.
Elsewhere, visits with Santa have been carried out with Plexiglass shields, glass windows and drive-by setups to minimize contact.
In a virtual town hall for kids on CNN last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, reassured kids that Santa could still make his way around the world on Christmas Eve.
“I took a trip up there to the North Pole, I went there and I vaccinated Santa Claus myself,” he said. “I measured his level of immunity, and he is good to go. He can come down the chimney, he can leave the presents, he can leave, and you have nothing to worry about. Santa Claus is good to go.”
While the details look a little different this year, Ouray’s Elks had no thoughts of canceling the festivities altogether.
Their tradition, according to local lore, started in 1928 when Elks members on their way to the Lodge on Christmas Eve saw a wagon parked on the road. “Attached to the wagon was a note from a little girl informing Santa that because her family was poor and traveling, she hoped that he could still find them,” former Elks Exalted Ruler Jim Pettengill wrote in an Elks Lodge Cookbook about a decade ago. “When the Elks reached the lodge, they told their story, the members located a Santa suit, assembled bags of fruit, candy and nuts and delivered them to the family.”
The tradition grew over the years, to reach more than 300 children in some years, Pettengill wrote. Notices in the Plaindealer in the 1960s asked for volunteers to help fill 600 to 700 bags of candy for the Santas to deliver. Demand has fluctuated as the population of Ouray County changed – as retirees and second homeowners moved in, fewer families with kids signed up to have Santa deliver in some years.
This year’s effort is smaller: Kuhlman said there were 36 families signed up the week before Christmas, with a few days left to sign up, but she called the number surprisingly high given the unusual circumstances.
As they do every year, Elks gathered at the lodge on the last Friday before Christmas to pack up the bags, which this year included not just candy but also stuffed animals, coloring books and toys.
“There were a lot of people this year that donated money, anonymously, to help us buy the gifts,” Kuhlman said. “There were a lot of generous people that made us able to do that.”
Even with the changes, this year’s Santas are looking forward to spreading Christmas spirit in a new way.
“It’s all about the families,” Wild said. “The younger kids get so excited, and the older ones play along. It’s just a blast to see families having fun.”
“Normally, they give us the route and we go from house to house and spend some time there,” said Andy Carrie, now in his fourth year playing Santa. “We give them the full ‘ho, ho, ho and what do you want for Christmas?’ type of thing. The kids love it.”
“It’s not going to be the same personal contact we’ve had previously, but they’re still going to love to see Santa on Christmas Eve, even if it’s just a brief glimpse,” he said. “I think it’s great that they’re going ahead and doing it.” Canceling the event, like so many other activities have been this year, “would have been a real shame,” he said. The lodge already had to cancel its popular haunted house for Halloween, but made trick-or-treating possible by delivering candy down the front steps with a slide providing safe distance. Tweaking the Christmas delivery tradition was par for the course as far as holidays go in the pandemic.
Like other experienced Santas, Carrie’s fine-tuned his approach over the last few years. “The first time they gave me the route, I didn’t even live here,” he said, but had been approached about participating while he and his wife were visiting for the holiday. “I had no idea where any of these places were. We’re literally driving around using GPS, hoping we’re in the right spot.”
Now, he’s more experienced with the routes, including finding apartments or houses tucked behind other buildings. “I could be an Uber driver now, definitely,” he said.
Carrie recalled one stop on his route a few years ago, when all 17 people, “from a 6-month-old baby to the 90-year-old grandma,” were dressed in matching pajamas.“The grandma had Alzheimer’s, and they were so appreciative because when I walked in, it was the first time she’d actually lit up,” he said. “It was incredible.”
“There’s always that certain age of kids where it’s just magic,” said Doug Leverenz, who turned in his Santa suit after more than a decade of playing the part. “Their eyes just light up, and when they’re not too young where they’re scared, they’re ready to talk to you and tell you what they want.”
The joy was contagious for Leverenz, who had an especially stressful day job during the holidays. “I was a mailman during the day, so I was tired and stressed out before that and it just lightened me up doing that,” he recalled.
For the first time in more than a decade, Leverenz won’t be playing Santa this year, after he and his wife moved to Arizona to be closer to family.
Most years, the weather cooperated with his deliveries, he said, though in “one of the worst years,” he and his wife made their way down icy county roads in a Honda Civic. After that, he began riding for the night in vehicles with four-wheel drive, he said.
Santa’s mode of transportation prompts frequent questions, some of the Santas said, such as “why is Santa in a red Jeep? And where are his reindeer?”
“I told them my wife had taken the reindeer to feed them because they were tired,” Wild said.
“I made that mistake the first year,” Leverenz said. “I said we had to park (the sleigh) down the road a ways.”
Others ask why Santa’s there early, before they’re asleep. “I‘d tell them I’d be back later with the real presents, this was just going around meeting some of the kids,” Leverenz said.
The Elks have a stock of Santa costumes, kept packed away for most of the year in plastic bins. Others, like Carrie, have purchased their own.
“If I’m playing Santa Claus, I’m looking the part,” he said. “So yeah, I’ve got the full mall Santa.”
Mike Trahan, who will play Santa for the first time this year, tried on his costume at the Lodge after the bags were stuffed, sifting through the boxes for the right red hat to match his jacket.
“You’ve got a jacket, and belt, and pants and these go over your boots,” Kuhlman said, fishing out a pair of black shoe covers to complete the look. Trahan tried on a white beard, adjusting it to fit just right, and other members teased him about whether he needed to bulk up with a pillow underneath the costume.
Jerry Serman, who will drive one of the Santas, is dressing up his Jeep for the occasion, too, with light-up antlers. He’s looking forward to bringing a little joy to families during this difficult, uncertain time.
“No matter what else has been going on this year, they’re going to smile,” Serman said.