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‘Santa Claus’ is coming to town wearing a mask, keeping his distance

“When you put on that red-and-white suit, it’s more than just clothing. It’s what it represents. For a lot of little kids, I could be their last best hope." -- Herman Wisneski of the Brainerd Elks

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Recording his holiday message to Baxter second graders Friday morning at Lord of Life Lutheran Church, long time area Santa Herman Wisneski tells the story of "The Night Before Christmas" which will be broadcast to the Baxter elementary students. With COVID-19 restrictions in place, Wisneski has learned to adapt this season. His popularity is far reaching in Central Minnesota ranging from the Harding Horse Parade , family gatherings and a visit to the Brainerd Public Library to read for children. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
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It’s not easy being Santa this time of year.

Just ask Herman Wisneski. The 71-year-old from Fort Ripley makes it an annual Christmas tradition of bringing Kris Kringle to life, and he’s in demand most years.

“I’m Santa — let’s put it that way — all right?” Wisneski said with his long white beard. “When I put on that red suit, I’m Santa. … You get a chance to make a difference in a young person’s life.”

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The coronavirus pandemic, however, makes embodying the beloved gift-giver more difficult this year; Wisneski wants to share the joy of the holiday season with others — not the coronavirus.

He worked as a tax auditor for the state of Minnesota for four decades before becoming better known to local children as the jolly ol’ man with the snow-white hair and iconic red-and-white suit.

“My late wife had long white hair, so we started playing Santa Claus for the Brainerd Elks for their Christmas party way back, oh, I’d say 20 years ago, maybe a little longer. And people started asking me if I’d be willing to come over to their house to play Santa Claus,” he said.

He is a board member of the Minnesota Elks Youth Camp and treasurer of the Brainerd Elks Lodge No. 615. The Brainerd Elks has had five state presidents, including Wisneski in 2009.

RELATED: Mrs. Claus the jolly bus driver brings Christmas to her students
“When you put on that red-and-white suit, it’s more than just clothing. It’s what it represents. For a lot of little kids, I could be their last best hope,” said Wisneski, who has portrayed Santa at schools and for civic organizations.

He has made appearances at Cub Foods in character — reading to children, having his photo taken with them, listening to them as they share their wish lists — but because of COVID-19 he has had to make some adjustments at events, such as talking to children through car windows.

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Herman Wisneski talks Friday, Dec. 11, at Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Baxter during the recording of his holiday message to Baxter Elementary second-graders. With the COVID-19 restrictions, Santa will deliver his message to children remotely this year. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

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The presents kids tell Santa they want are as varied as the children themselves.

“I had a young man a couple of years ago … who looked at me and sat on my lap, and I said, ‘What do you want for Christmas?’” he recalled. “‘My dad home.’ His dad was deployed in Afghanistan. This little kid for Christmas wants his dad home.”

RELATED: Commentary: The role of a lifetime, delivered by the real St. Nick
While some children have simple wishes, others may have more expensive tastes, such as a desire for an iPad or a laptop underneath the Christmas tree.

“An eye doctor who’s retired now gave me some Johnson & Johnson eye patches, and I said ‘What are these for?’ When they ask for an iPad, just give them one of these,” he said. “Or to a young kid wanting a laptop … I said there’s your laptop. ... You’re on my lap and you’re on top.”

He made a video Friday, Dec. 11, at Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Baxter for a second-grade class to watch because COVID-19 precluded him from appearing to students in person.

“Santa Claus will be talking about what’s going on in the world and COVID and everything else and making sure they know that Christmas is coming — and that I’ll be there — and then I’m going to read them ‘‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,’” he said. “Now that might not seem like a lot to an adult, but to a little kid it might mean a hell of a lot.”

Wisneski said he does not charge for his appearances as St. Nick. And he said he has not appeared in the past at sites such at the Westgate Mall, which typically hosts Santa for a visit and a photo opportunity.

“As of right now we are not having Santa. We are still trying to find someone,” said Nicki Martineau, national marketing manager for Lexington Realty International, a national real estate firm whose properties include the Westgate Mall.

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Wisneski said when he does appear as Father Christmas this year, he wears a face mask and keeps 6 feet apart from others to slow the spread or transmission of the coronavirus. He also said he has a lot fewer engagement or bookings this year because of the rise in COVID-19 cases.

“When you had kids sitting on your lap and you asked them what they wanted for Christmas, they’d whisper it in your ear, but they can’t do that when you’re 4 or 5 feet away, you know?” he said of social distancing. “And to see the look in a kid’s eye, that’s what I’ll miss a lot.”

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL .

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Herman Wisneski talks Friday, Dec. 11, at Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Baxter during the recording of his holiday message to Baxter Elementary second-graders. With the COVID-19 restrictions, Santa will deliver his message to children remotely this year. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

121320.N.BD.Santapandemic2.jpg
Herman Wisneski talks Friday, Dec. 11, at Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Baxter during the recording of his holiday message to Baxter Elementary second-graders. With the COVID-19 restrictions, Santa will deliver his message to children remotely this year. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

I cover arts and entertainment, and write feature stories, for the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. As a professional journalist with years of experience, I have won awards for my fact-based reporting. And my articles have also appeared in other publications, including USA Today. 📰
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