George McCleary is a horticulturist and a vegetable farmer. Around this time of year, he’s also a Santa. He’s been putting on the red coat for about four decades. But he’s now 66 and borderline diabetic, so he wasn’t sure how he could safely do his Santa visits in the middle of the pandemic.
“A month before Santa season, I was trying to decide how we’re going to do some of these visits because a lot of them were in people’s houses,” he said. “And my doctor just said no, you can’t go in their houses.”
So McCleary bought a new laptop and a microphone. He was about to send out his availability for doing his Santa visits virtually, but then he had another idea.
“Well, maybe we could get a trailer, put a sleigh on it and go visit people,” he said.
COVID-19 has put a damper on some holiday traditions this year, and it also put a lot of local Santas out of work. Some are shielding behind plexiglass at the mall or doing virtual visits, but many, because of their age, are sitting out the season completely.
But not McCleary. A day after he came up with the idea, he found a red trailer for sale on the side of the road. He bought a sleigh, mounted it on the trailer with some lights and decorations and posted a note to a local Facebook group about doing Santa visits.
“The first night I got 50 calls. ‘Can you come to our house? Can you come to our house?’ -- and it just started, and it’s rolling, snowballing,” he said.
McCleary, who is president of the Connecticut Society of Santas, said most of his members are staying home this season because of the pandemic.
Even so, people still need Santa.
“When we’re singing and get the kids to dance -- the smiles on those parents’ faces is just a treasure,” McCleary said. “Even when we’re driving down the road on this trailer. We’re going down Route 8, someone will start to go by, put their brake on, they’ll pull up and roll their windows down, and out come the cellphones, click, click, click, click, and they’re laughing.”
All his visits are free, but McCleary sometimes takes donations from parents to help pay off the trailer and the sleigh. As he climbed into his truck for his 10th visit that day, McCleary said the display on his trailer is a bit dimmer after water on the roads from last week’s nor’easter shorted out half his lights.
“What I’m doing is not for every Santa,” he said, explaining that he has unique skills because of his work on the farm. “The biggest thing the farm has given me is being able to back this trailer up … I’m used to backing farm wagons and all kinds of equipment up my whole life, so this is like second nature to me.”
At his next stop, McCleary pulls up his truck to a group of kids and parents. They sing for him as he plugs in his lights and climbs up onto the trailer.
He’s flanked by Mrs. Claus -- his wife, Carol, in real life -- and a friend who plays an elf. McCleary tells the crowd he’s using his “everyday” sleigh right now -- you know, the one he takes to the grocery store.
He holds a lengthy Q&A session, and one child asks what will happen if they start commercial mining at the North Pole. He assures the crowd that Santa owns the land.
After McCleary handed out a few presents, the parents sneaking into his bag, he carefully backed his trailer out of the driveway and made his way to the next stop -- his 11th.
Thomaston resident Margarit Saghafi said she was happy McCleary could be a part of her family’s holiday. She’s a nurse in the COVID unit at a local hospital, and she and her husband got the virus earlier this year.
“It’s been a difficult year ... but things like this lighten the mood and make it special,” she said.
Saghafi said she enjoyed seeing her kids’ excitement as much as the kids enjoyed seeing Santa himself.