NOBLESVILLE, Ind. (WISH) — David Cornwell saved Christmas 2020 at Cabela’s, managers at the Noblesville store said.
For more than 40 years, Cornwell transformed himself into Santa Claus for the outdoor recreation retailer’s annual “Santa’s Wonderland” event.
Smiling in his velvet suit and sporting a long white beard (au naturale, according to his elves), Cornwell appeared in Christmas photos with thousands of children over the years.
They sat on his knee, told him their holiday wishes and, sometimes, burst into tears after confessing their naughty deeds.
Cornwell looked forward to seeing all the children – naughty and nice – and often recognized his repeat visitors from previous years.
This year, he vowed to spread the same holiday cheer, even as the rapid spread of coronavirus shuttered businesses and halted social events.
Cornwell wasn’t deterred and began planning early.
He approached managers at Cabela’s in July and declared, “We will have a Santa in Noblesville this year, folks!” said Sean Stovall, a club manager.
Several retailers struggled to hire Santas for meet-and-greet events because of coronavirus concerns and demands for hazard pay, Stovall said, but Cornwell insisted they could find a safe, affordable way to keep their holiday tradition alive.
In November, Cabela’s unveiled their pandemic-era winter wonderland. Cornwell, who sits behind a clear acrylic barrier, wears a face shield, mask and gloves.
Children no longer sit on his lap or whisper in his ear; instead, they sit for photos on the other side of the barrier and speak to Santa on walkie-talkies that are sanitized between every visit.
A team of elves dubbed “Santa’s Sanitization Squad” wipe down every surface, conduct temperature checks and set up online reservations to prevent crowding.
The necessity of the safety measures isn’t lost on Cornwell.
“I have probably 400 friends on Facebook that are Santas and all of us are concerned about getting anyone sick or getting sick ourselves,” he told News 8, adding he felt safe behind his barrier, shield and mask.
Cornwell couldn’t have predicted his 45th Christmas as Saint Nick would involve layering personal protective equipment over his velvet Santa suit, but tries to give visitors – children and parents alike – a moment of predictable joy amid uncertain times.
“Some of the kids really understand all of this is going on and still are happy to see Santa,” he said, his face shield fogging up.
The crackle of the walkie-talkie couldn’t hide the emotion in his voice.
SOCIALLY-DISTANCED SANTA EVENTS: