California desert Santas lift the Christmas spirit, even in 2020

I am the oldest of eight grandchildren and we would celebrate Christmas with my grandparents.

To our astonishment, Santa Claus came by on Christmas Eve every year. We walked up to him one by one, got on his knees and he gave us a present. From 4 to 8 years old it was magical. By the ages of 9 to 13, I felt pretty cool and grown up because I had a secret and only played along for the younger kids. But there were always new grandchildren, and the tradition stayed alive, so cut to 1988, Santa Claus is in position and suddenly I’m the center of attention.

All eyes are on me with cameras and belly laughs. You know, now I’m six feet tall whose only goal in life is to look cool. Crushing a poor Santa Claus while everyone was pointing and laughing wasn’t cool. I was in full pout mode and having no fun at all, which sure made it even more fun for my parents, aunts, and uncles.

So this is my Christmas memory. Now of course I can look back and laugh at this picture. (Sorry, no photos. They were lost in a flood, which used to be common with photos). And I’m sure many of you have similar stories of interactions with Santa Claus.

Most of all, Santa Claus is about creating memories that will last a lifetime.

And while there has been a huge debate around the world as to whether the man himself is real, Santa’s ghost definitely is.

And that spirit has not been broken until 2020, and in fact I am pleased to report that Santa’s magic has been shown to be nearly immune to the coronavirus.

Sure, the traditional scene of a child on Santa’s knee whispering his Christmas wishes to Santa may not happen in 2020, but all over the valley, Santas are adapting and going to great lengths to ensure that lasting memories remain.

Changed for 2020

Cathy Duke of Indio and her elf troop founded Project Santa 2 The Rescue, a nonprofit group that provides gifts and food to those who are less fortunate. She founded the group as a tribute to her father after his death in 2011 and inherited the Santa suit he had used many years ago to help people in need.

It suits her well in every way.

Certainly not all normal Santa Claus rules apply in 2020, so she had to get creative. She and her cheerful crowd have set up in various places in the valley so that families can drive by and see Santa Claus. She and her masked elves give the children small stuffed toys and candy canes with a long claw stick while they chat and take photos with a safely removed Santa Claus.

It’s what she calls a sleigh-thru. On a newer version in Thousand Palms, she also invited a friend to be the Grinch. She said that gave the kids an extra kick as they watched from their cars as Santa and the Grinch danced around each other.

“I started in honor of my dad and it was really fun and I feel good every year,” said Duke. “Usually we have a big event and we make things like food homeless, but unfortunately none of that can happen this year. We created these opportunities because we didn’t want to let a year go by. “

She added a mask to her Santa Claus outfit, which made the whole thing even hotter than usual, she said.

“Yeah, I mean, I already have the hat, wig and my own hair so my head is pretty hot already,” she said. “Then of course the full suit and the beard and now a mask? It was warm, but it was worth it. “

Meanwhile, La Quinta’s Greg Little and Laura Hunt Little took a different approach with the concept of a drive-by Santa interaction, trading the traditional reindeer sleigh for the horsepower of a jeep.

“We thought about what we would do over the summer when Christmas is around the corner, if it is still like that,” said Laura. “And we have a golf cart and we were talking about decorating it with reindeer sticking out the front or something, but I thought we could only jeep three or four blocks and fill it with presents (wrapped empty boxes) and set it on fire . “

They drive around town in a jeep, pulling smiles and terrifying second glances from other motorists on the way before stopping at a hospital, park, or someone’s home to spread happiness while maintaining a safe distance adhere to.

“We did the drive-bys and that worked well by just asking the kids to stay on the curb,” said Greg. “Yes, kids can’t sit on Santa’s lap this year and do things like usual and that’s a shame, but they still have fun and it’s a good photo opportunity. I think the kids are great, but it’s the parents. ” who break the rules more often and want to get too close to Santa Claus. That’s why I usually let the car go just to have an escape route. “

The Littles said one day after visiting some desert hospitals they made an unscheduled drive past a La Quinta park.

“We approached the park and it was spotted and not a lie. About 30 kids ran up to us and shouted ‘Santa! Santa’,” said Greg. “My wife said slower, slower, but I said,” No. No. No. We can’t take our foot off the gas. It was kind of crazy. “

Greg Little as Santa Claus and Laura Hunt Little as Mrs. Claus are photographed in Bermuda Dunes, California on Saturday December 19, 2020.

The Littles tried several methods of spreading cheers in 2020 only. You have visited Zoom classrooms of friends who are teachers. They also created personalized video messages that parents can share.

On a recent Sunday night, after the Philadelphia Eagles game, because Santa and Mrs. Claus are die-hard Eagles fans, they set up their driveway with the jeep full of presents as a backdrop and special lighting. They invited families to pull up and stand in a tape-marked rectangle on their driveway for a photo with Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus and the jeep / sleigh in the background.

“Basically we just try everything to see what stays and it feels like most of it resonates and we’re happy to do it,” said Greg. “We’re trying to do everything we can to make people happy because, well, let’s face it, it’s been a shitty year.”

The power of the suit

Greg is a very authentic-looking Santa with his actual white beard – even longer and fuller thanks to the quarantine this year – and the suit he’s been improving every year since he began his calling a decade ago.

Greg and Laura followed on Saturday as they drove to friends’ homes to surprise the children with a visit from Santa Claus. It wasn’t just the children’s reactions that were heartwarming, but also the trail of smiles that they left along the way.

Grown men in pickups waved like schoolchildren as Santa drove by. Women in convertibles honked and shouted. People rushed to grab their cell phones to snap a quick picture of St. Nick as he pulled up at a traffic light next to them.

It’s far from 10 years ago when Greg first donned the suit to replace an absent Santa at a school event.

“Yeah, my wife volunteered me for it and all of a sudden I was in that gross Christmas suit that another guy was wearing an hour ago,” Greg said. “But it’s gotten a lot better than I thought.

“I’ll be honest with you that I was really nervous,” he said. “But then seeing people’s faces light up was like, ‘Oh man, so this suit actually works.’ And it grew pretty quickly. I also quickly realized that there was a certain responsibility involved, and it became super real, super quick. “

Greg has some classic stories from his early Christmas season, like stopping by after a gig at a Stater Brothers and forgetting that he was still pretty much dressed up as Santa Claus. He grabbed a big old bottle of vodka and looked over his shoulder to see a family staring at him with big eyes.

“I thought, ‘Oh wow, that’s right.’ And I quickly handed it over to my wife, “he said.

“Right, Mrs. Claus needs her hooch,” Laura said with a laugh.

Duke also had a fun moment in the grocery store. She has a credit card for her nonprofit that actually has Santa Claus on it. She stood in line to check out and, as so often, she was dressed like herself, but wore an elf hat.

A little boy in line behind her asked if she was a real elf.

“I thought quickly and said, ‘Yeah, I’m sure and Santa even gave me his credit card to go shopping for him,'” she said. “I showed him the card and he was a believer.”

Duke said that in nine years she was asked only once by a child how she could be Santa Claus as a girl. She told him Santa can’t be everywhere so his elves have to go to Santa Clause school and that she started out as an elf and worked her way up.

Cathy Duke as Santa Claus and her group called Project Santa 2 The Rescue give gifts to people in cars in Thousand Palms, California on Saturday, December 19, 2020.

She had the power of the suit behind her.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” she said. “As soon as I put on this suit, I’m no longer myself. It’s magical.”

Little said that over the past decade he has learned many secrets about being a Santa Claus.

– There is at least one child every year who has a total and screaming meltdown on their lap.

– Parents always like these photos best.

– At certain adult drinks flow events, there were some women who, when they revealed their wish-list to Santa, were definitely on the naughty list.

It takes special people like Cathy or Greg and Laura to take on this role. It’s a voluntary appearance that takes a lot of time and effort. And they don’t get paid … well, not in money.

“The other day in Palm Springs, I was standing at a traffic light in the jeep and a guy drove past me, turned and came back,” said Greg. “He told me this story, ‘Man, my house was just robbed and I lost all of my things and my phone is broken and I go to the store to buy a new one and I saw you guys and I turned around” just so I could see you Dude you just made me smile That is what I needed.’

“I said, ‘No, you made me smile.’ And he drove away. That’s the reward. If I can do this without trying, it’s kind of cool. Anything I can do to make people happy. If that’s my part, that’s super cool of me. “

I wonder if Greg would still feel this way if a sour 6-foot-4.16-year-old bruised his knee? Probably. This is Santa’s magic.

Shad Powers is a columnist for The Desert Sun. Reach him at [email protected]. To make a donation to Project Santa 2 The Rescue, visit their website at

Leave a Comment