We can all agree that 2020 has been the most unusual year as we struggle to cope with a global pandemic that has uprooted nearly every aspect of how we live and work. A year ago, terms like ‘social distancing’, and ‘you’re on mute’ meant nothing to me. In 2019, I weaved through grand crowds at the local farmer’s market without a mask, not thinking twice about the proximity of my fellow shoppers. I ate at restaurants, enjoyed packed movie theatres and running through busy airports to catch my next flight. At the mall, I navigated through lines of excited children impatiently waiting to meet that festive staple, Santa Claus.
Flash forward a year. Thankfully, I’m still employed, but no longer enjoying face to face meetings with our science alumni. Instead, I sit at my makeshift office in the corner of my kitchen and fire up Zoom on my lap top for those important engagement meetings. Today’s call was going to be a little different and I couldn’t help but be a little excited. I was about to Zoom with the big man himself.
The stunning white beard was almost three dimensional as was his twinkling, gregarious smile. He waved a big hello from his home office and I felt transformed into a 6 year-old girl. Science alumnus, Alan Viau, PhD ’84 Chemistry, may not actually be the real Santa Claus, but he certainly comes as close as anyone could.
For the past 10 years Alan has enjoyed playing the jolly role of Santa Claus for annual Christmas parties but it wasn’t until his April 2020 retirement from his Senior Executive position in the Federal Public Service in Ottawa and the corresponding COVID-19 pandemic that Alan considered growing his Santa role. “I realized that malls were closing and that kids wouldn’t have access to Santa. I thought, well if they can’t go see Santa in person, then maybe I could bring Santa to them.”
Alan teamed up with a local photography company and virtual Santa visits became the new and safe way for children to meet with Santa. From his website, parents can request a 5 minute scheduled Zoom video call with Santa. A form detailing a child’s wish list and any background information to “help” Santa relate to the child is also filled out. It’s these details that make for more personalized and meaningful holiday session explains Alan, “I had one girl who had a photo of her Grandfather with Santa. Before he passed away, he shared with her that he knew Santa and they went way back. I knew this ahead of time, and when we had our online meeting I could see her clutching that photo. I smiled and pointed to her Grandfather ‘Oh look! There’s my good friend Murray… we had a lot of fun together!’ I’ve never seen a bigger smile. She was so happy.”
Becoming Santa Claus did require a bit of background work before Alan could start his online visits. His wife, Maureen, is a professional costume designer and was determined to make him the perfect outfit. From a deep red jacquard suit made from luxurious theatre drapes, to big burgundy ‘S’ engraved buttons and a shiny brass buckle boasting a giant ‘C’, Alan definitely looks the part. He let his naturally white beard grow to a fully rounded set of whiskers that children are delighted to see when they log onto the call. He created a perfectly festive living room complete with cozy fireplace, decorated tree and, of course, a video camera off sight in the distance.
The detailed work to perfect the Santa role paid off. Children were eager to see Santa at the North Pole, happy to video from their own home and avoid the mall where the hustle and mayhem at Christmas time often stresses out even the most enthusiastic Santa seekers.
Alan’s experiences with children during these video calls has been extremely rewarding and he often sees notoriously shy children come out of their shell when they chat, “Most often we’ll talk about my reindeer and what snacks they like during the big journey… I try to have a meaningful interaction with them during the call and not just skip to the Christmas wish list part. I’ll quiz them and they’re quite eager to come up with the answers.” Although he has most of the Santa-lore down pat, he admits that sometimes he needs to think quickly on his feet. He recalls one older child with a high IQ who demanded to know exactly how old Santa was, his quick mind already calculating a seemingly impossible age. “He told me I looked 60 and he knew I’d be much, much older of course. I asked him if he knew what time zone the North Pole was in and there it was, a light bulb went off in his head. He knew that there was no time zone up here and that was exactly the reason I didn’t age.”
I listen to several more stories, each one more heart warming than the last. Alan’s love for children is clearly apparent and it’s evident as he describes his calls. In addition to typical Christmas banter he engages in, this year children have shown concern over the COVID-19 crisis and ask about his exposure to the virus and how he is keeping safe. Alan is quick to assure them that he’s taking appropriate actions to mitigate the spread and itemizes steps he’s taken to protect both himself and all the houses he visits. His elves disinfect his sled before and after each house he visits, a magical process that adds only milliseconds to his overall travel time. He has an invisible shield that prevents Santa droplets from spreading to houses and of course Mrs. Claus has added special fibers to his coat that repels all viruses. He assures them that Christmas is a little different this year, but that it will still be great.
But let’s not forget that Alan is a scientist at heart. For older children who show an interest in science or life at the North Pole, Alan extends a call to action. Climate change, he explains to them, is beginning to melt the polar icecaps and that is directly affecting his North Pole operations. He urges children to learn more about the environment, and to discuss climate change with their friends, teachers and family.
As I continue my Zoom call with Santa, er Alan, he is excited to point out an interesting fact about our very own Chemistry department that I wasn’t aware of. During his time as a PhD candidate at UWaterloo, Alan noted that there was an issue with the exhaust system in the main chemistry building and that the return rate of exhaust could be a health concern. Because of his discovery, a new high efficiency chimney was installed to improve exhaust emissions. Although the chimney still stands today, Alan admits it’s not the sort anyone expects Santa to climb down.
The chemistry chimney isn’t the only tie Alan has with UWaterloo. While he was Director of Pharmaceutical Sciences for Health Canada, Alan was also an Adjunct Professor of the School of Pharmacy, offering lectures on the process of drug approvals in Canada.
It’s clear that Alan is used to a fairly busy work life and in retirement I ask him what else he has planned. Surely the Santa gig is seasonal and will leave him with little to do over the spring and summer months. “Oh... I didn’t tell you,” he says, smiling, “I’m also an ordained minister and I perform about 80 weddings a year. Everyone loves weddings and Santa, so I’m always surrounded by happy people.”
All too soon, the ding of my laptop signals that another meeting requires my participation and my call with Alan needs to draw to a close. We talk for a few more moments before he offers another wave and of course wishes for a happy holiday season. I admit to him that I haven’t enjoyed a Zoom call more than this one. Alan smiles knowingly and leans forward into the camera, “It’s the magic of Santa.”
The video shuts off and I sit for a moment pondering the Zoom call and the alumnus I just met. My coffee is cold and so I stand up to refresh my drink before the next call starts. I look out of the window as fluffy white flakes start to fall and settle on the walkway I’d only just shovelled the night before. I think of the upcoming holiday season and how different it will be from other years. No doubt it will consist of a similar Zoom call between dozens of my family members waving awkwardly into the void of a laptop camera from their respective houses. I picture Alan in his home office clutching his beautiful Santa suit and couldn’t help but smile. It’ll be a little different this year, but as Santa says, it will still be great.
*writer’s update: After previewing his story, Santa has revealed that I am, in fact, on the nice list!