CHICAGO — This year, getting in the holiday spirit requires a dash of hope, a little bit of magic and a Zoom account. Just ask Santa.

“(Kids) know COVID-19 is bad, they know to wear their masks and be careful and maybe they won’t see their cousins this Christmas,” said Andre Russell, aka Dreezy Claus. “But when they talk to me, they are just having a ball.”

Veteran Santa Clauses and rookie St. Nicks alike are shifting the gears on their sleighs and pivoting to virtual visits with customized backgrounds and classic props while officials plead with people to stay home during the pandemic.

While there is promising news about vaccines, families still face challenges in this difficult year. For one, how do you safely give your children a memorable holiday experience? Many Chicago-area malls are holding in-person visits with Santa where kids can share their wish lists and pose for photos, albeit with Plexiglas barriers and social distancing guidelines. But for kids with remote learning under their belts, a remote visit from Santa is the new normal.

“When the pandemic first hit, I automatically thought of December and wondered if I could or wanted to do it since it’s a tremendous mental responsibility to put the smile on, and people have so much going on,” said Russell, whose Santa hat sports salt-and-pepper-colored dreadlocks and who has been playing the jolly old elf for more than 10 years.

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This year he created an elaborate setup in his basement, complete with a fireplace decked out in red brick, tinsel and a train set. Gift bags, one with an image of Baby Yoda, peek out from the sides of the fireplace. The Calumet Heights native also invested in a camera and quality lighting to have more polished video setups. After all, Santa Claus doesn’t cheap out.

“This feeling is needed. The kids need something to get cheered up about,” said Russell, 44, whose fees begin at $25 for virtual visits. “To be able to present that image and that conversation and let them know I wish I could be there.”

Toren Jones, 6, and Tarek Jones, 2, met Dreezy Claus for the first time on their tablet a couple of weeks ago. Their dad, Tarence Jones, said the virtual experience still felt special to his children, who are accustomed to virtual conversations.

“It was awesome. At the beginning of the call the younger one wanted to monopolize the conversation and kept yelling, ‘Santa, Santa!’ The 6-year-old was skeptical and shy ... he was like, ‘How does Santa have our phone number? How is he on our tablet?’”

Tarence Jones, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago but now lives in Kenosha, said he has known Russell for years and wanted his sons to meet “Chicago’s Black Santa.” Russell took the name Dreezy from his first name, Andre.

“It was cool for my sons to realize that not all Santas have to look the same way,” he said. “For me, I’m trying to teach my sons that they can be anything they want and that representation is a big deal. They can see a Black Santa, a Black president and now, a Black vice president.”

The inspiration behind wearing the big red suit is personal. For some it is a calling; others see a need.

When COVID-19 wiped out his job opportunities in the wedding industry in the spring, Keith KoKoruz, 51, looked for a way to use his entertainment skills. Now he is all in, even visiting a local salon to get his beard bleached snow white.

“The good-looking Santas wear their own beards,” KoKoruz joked. “All of the fun and silliness I have as an uncle, I have as Santa. I’ve done my homework.”

Just a month into playing St. Nick, KoKoruz has styled his office in Schaumburg into Santa’s workshop, decorated with bright Christmas lights and garlands. He has perfected a deep and enthusiastic “ho-ho-ho!” for the older children. Babies can get easily frightened on Zoom, he added.

“All my calls are with families super excited about Christmas,” he said. “They tell me how they wear their mask all day; I become their best friend for a second,” KoKoruz said.

KoKoruz’s rate begins at $35 for personalized calls. Each session is unique, and he sings carols and reads Christmas tales. He writes everything down, to pass along to his elves, of course.

The calls are more than brief meetings with the man that leads the world’s most renowned reindeer. For many children, it’s the chance to build a connection to others and maintain the spirit of Christmas, he said.

“In a lot of malls, there’s a quick pass over and a picture,” KoKoruz said. “What’s great about this whole situation is getting to spend time getting to know who they are. ... I think we all crave being social, especially now that the governor and mayor have asked us to stay in when it’s the biggest time of year to be social.”

For John Sullivan, being Santa Claus is a lifestyle. The 81-year-old maintains a long white beard year-round and is often stopped and questioned by inquisitive children wondering where his sleigh is parked.

“The answer is always magic,” Sullivan laughed.

Sullivan, who is based in Streamwood, has worked as a seasonal Santa Claus for more than 25 years in the Chicago area. He first got into the character when he was in between jobs and began running the mall Santa photo operation for the Charlestowne Mall in St. Charles in the early ’90s. If one of the Santas didn’t clock into work, Sullivan would step up and don the classic red suit and fuzzy hat.

“With the little children you are someone really special, you are giving them such joy. It’s the most wonderful thing you can imagine,” he said. “I never dreamt of being a Santa. I know a lot of people who play Santa, and they get the same feeling.”

And Santa Claus is not just important to kids. A 2013 Pew Research Survey found that 7 in 10 parents with at least one child younger than 18 say they plan to have Santa visit their house on Christmas Eve. Even among people whose children don’t believe in Santa or aren’t parents, 1 in 5 still plans to get a visit from him.

Sullivan has been the local Santa for village events, park districts and has spent time on helicopters and Christmas boat tours of Lake Michigan. In a good season, he is booked for up to 60 events and can make upward of $15,000.

But with pandemic restrictions, he now charges for personalized messages online and books clients for virtual sessions. His computer background is an ethereal mix of blue and green sky, just like the North Pole. He carries sleigh bells, whistles and a naughty and nice list, rolled up in a scroll.

“If I’m vaccinated and back next year, I’ll be back at it,” he said. “As a Santa, there’s nothing like a little child running up to you and saying, ‘Santa, Santa! I’ve been waiting to see you!’ It’s the little ones you miss the most, the true believers.”

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