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‘Smile with your eyes’: Tampa Santa still brings cheer, even with mask

He refuses to let 2020 be the year without a Santa Claus.
Jack Welsh, 4, shares a moment with Wesley Cull, 67, who is dressed as Santa, during a photography session with his brothers at E&E Family Farm in Seffner on Dec. 12.
Jack Welsh, 4, shares a moment with Wesley Cull, 67, who is dressed as Santa, during a photography session with his brothers at E&E Family Farm in Seffner on Dec. 12. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 16, 2020
Updated Dec. 17, 2020

Mrs. Claus tied a mask with the word “Believe” over Santa Wes’ mustache. His white beard poked out from the bottom.

“You can’t see me smiling,” she said to Santa, her own mask a candy cane print.

“Smile with your eyes,” he replied.

On a cold Saturday morning, at an open barn at E&E Family Farm in Seffner, Santa Wes and Mrs. Claus had come to take photos with children and their families. A bottle of hand sanitizer sat on a table across the barn. A crystal chandelier dangled from the rafters. Santa, 67, took his seat on a velvet couch nestled on a bed of hay, snugly set between two Christmas trees.

The Clauses have left it up to parents to decide whether or not they’ll be wearing masks.

The Welsh family wanted to be careful before seeing grandparents in two weeks, so the kids donned matching white and green masks. Steven, 9, and Michael, 7, plopped down on either side of Santa. Four-year-old Jack sat on his lap.

Santa Wes’ blue eyes peeked at the children over round gold glasses.

“It’s so good to see you guys! I love your masks.”

“COVID-19 is not going to take Christmas away,” he said. “Oh, no no.”

Steven Welsh, 9, and Jack Welsh, 4, share a moment with Wesley Cull, 67, who is dressed as Santa, during a photography session with their brother Michael Welsh, 7, at E&E Family Farm in Seffner on Dec. 12.
Steven Welsh, 9, and Jack Welsh, 4, share a moment with Wesley Cull, 67, who is dressed as Santa, during a photography session with their brother Michael Welsh, 7, at E&E Family Farm in Seffner on Dec. 12. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
• • •

Wes Cull is celebrating his eighth year as a Santa. A Hillsborough County Courthouse employee by day, he looks forward to sporting the red suit with his wife, Deb, on weekends in December.

As soon as Thanksgiving passes, he wears exclusively red and green outfits, showing off his corduroy pants printed with candy canes and gingerbread at work. He’s transformed his guest room into Santa Headquarters, with clothing racks full of their outfits, purses stuffed with candy and treats for children, and a bookshelf displaying their wigs. Their home is decorated with mini Santa figurines from around the world and a plaque that says “Believe.” It all stays out year-round.

“Our house looks like a Christmas village,” Deb said.

Normally, the Culls would be spending this month bringing cheer to assisted living facilities, day care centers, holiday parties and private events.

“We do basically anywhere except a mall,” he said. “I call myself a mobile Santa. I can do anything, go anywhere.”

His Santa dream sprung up four decades ago, when he helped his first wife run a day care center in California. He ended up filling in as old St. Nick for their annual Christmas party. Every holiday after that, he’d practice his ho ho hos and remember what it was like to wear the red suit.

When he moved to Florida with his second wife, Deb, he left behind his children and grandchildren. It was hard being apart, especially around the holidays. When he read an article about a Santa convention in the newspaper, he thought about how much fun it would be.

He told his boss, “I have to leave. I have to go to this.”

The convention led to taking a formal Santa course at the traveling International University of Santa Claus. Some of the skills he learned: How to hold children for photos. How to groom his beard to look more like St. Nick and less like a member of ZZ Top. How to answer the hard questions from kids, the ones that made him want to cry.

At the end, he received a diploma, his Bachelor’s of SantaClausology. He went back the next year, earning the rank of Master of SantaClausology.

Related: Want to be Santa? Be ready for tough questions and heartbreaking requests

Cull recruited Deb to be his Mrs. Claus. His wife of 14 years has embraced the role of Santa’s sidekick at meet and greets, slipping him notes about children’s hobbies and making sure her husband’s wig is on straight. She bought at least six Mrs. Claus outfits — every one that Amazon sold.

Cull had so much Christmas spirit that he was invited to join the Palm Tree Santas, the Florida chapter of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, despite the fact that he can’t grow a beard of his own. Santa Wes found a beard maker on Facebook and had him design two realistic beards for him. He paints his eyebrows with white mascara to match his beard.

“I’ve even had one of my grandchildren on my lap at one point and he didn’t know it was me,” he said.

It seems like he was destined to be Santa. In his courthouse job, he often lends an ear to frustrated people.

“It’s overwhelming sometimes,” he said. “People who are coming to the courthouse are not coming here for happy reasons.

“Just listening is very important, because that’s one of the things that Santa does.”

Despite his hard-earned wisdom, nothing could have braced him for this year. What would 2020 look like?

Sydney Hodson, 6, of Valrico, looks on with her mask after a photography session with Wesley Cull, 67, who is dressed as Santa, at E&E Family Farm in Seffner on Dec. 12.
Sydney Hodson, 6, of Valrico, looks on with her mask after a photography session with Wesley Cull, 67, who is dressed as Santa, at E&E Family Farm in Seffner on Dec. 12. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
• • •

Santa Tim Connaghan, aka “National Santa,” has trained over 4,500 Santas and Mrs. Clauses, including Santa Wes, through the International University of Santa Claus. He normally conducts between eight and 12 in-person trainings around the country each year. But those, including a Mediterranean Santa cruise, were canceled. He described confusion in the Santa world about how to proceed.

For 15 weeks, Santa Tim conducted webinars to help a few hundred Santas. While some were trying to make it work like normal, others were transitioning their visits to children’s hospitals and day cares to a virtual format. They wanted to know the normal Santa tips, plus the best lighting sets, Zoom backgrounds and webcams to make their rosy red cheeks and twinkling eyes pop.

“There’s a lot of new companies that have come out of the woodwork this year — everyone wants to do Santa calls,” Santa Tim said. “Zoom, of course, made it quite unique.”

He taught the Santas how to ask about homeschooling and virtual classes: “Wow, this was different for school. How was the homeschooling? Did you do okay? Were you able to learn some of the things you wanted to learn?”

Every year, Santa Tim conducts a Red Suit Survey featuring Santas around the country that have taken his classes. They answer things like “Is the ‘Bowl of Jelly’ real or padding?” (82 percent said real) and “How often do children step on your boots?” (over 75 percent of Santas said at least once a day). This year, 361 Santas also answered questions about the pandemic. Nearly 60 percent tote a personal bottle of hand sanitizer. About 70 percent sanitize and change gloves when needed. And 85 percent got a flu shot this year.

Still, the measures don’t change the fact that Santas trend older — and with that age comes health concerns. About 40 percent are diabetic.

Yet the Santa tradition continues on — even, a cautious 16 percent of Santas report, behind plexiglass.

“St. Nicholas and Santa Claus have been going on for 17 centuries,” Santa Tim said.

“Wars haven’t stopped it. Pestilence hasn’t stopped it. It will not stop because it’s based on love.”

Sydney Hodson, 6, of Valrico, drops off a letter for Santa Claus following her photography session with him at E&E Family Farm in Seffner on Dec. 12.
Sydney Hodson, 6, of Valrico, drops off a letter for Santa Claus following her photography session with him at E&E Family Farm in Seffner on Dec. 12. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
• • •

Santa Wes started thinking about Christmas in March, as soon as the shutdown came. During the five months that he was working his courthouse job from home, he spent his time off scouring the Santa networking groups and forums to see how Santas around the world were handling it.

Meanwhile, calls came in. Past clients wanted to know: Was he still booking Santa gigs?

“I just can’t imagine a year without Santa Claus,” they said.

Neither could Wes and Deb.

A family friend made them Christmas-themed cloth masks, decorated with ivy, candy canes and bells. Santa Wes ordered different face shields, using trial and error until he found one that worked without fogging up his glasses.

Once the holiday season crept in, he started scouting out Santas at malls and Bass Pro Shops. He saw kids sitting 8 feet away from Santa, on a chair instead of a lap. Santas in masks and face shields. Some waved at children from inside giant snow globes. Others were protected by plexiglass barriers. It all felt weird to him.

He wasn’t worried about getting COVID-19. He has temperature checks at work on a regular basis. Deb is 65, but that hasn’t stopped her from joining him as Mrs. Claus. They wash their hands and try to social distance. But they couldn’t bring themselves to call off Santa meet and greets.

“If I lived my life like that I would be immobile,” Deb said.

In a hard year, Santa gives kids something to look forward to. She couldn’t take that away.

Santa Wes sees it as an opportunity to set an example for the children. It seems like most Santas he’s talked with are trying to do the same. And for Wes, he doesn’t miss an opportunity to educate:

“We do have COVID-19 at the North Pole,” he tells the children.

“Hopefully people are thinking of Santa, too, and wanting to keep him safe, because he’s an old guy.”

Still, Santa Wes and Mrs. Claus are comfortable letting client families set the pace.

He’s okay with wearing protective equipment in photos. He’s also fine letting children crawl in his lap unmasked — especially since he misses his own grandchildren, with the pandemic forcing them to postpone their vacation to California this year.

Wesley and Deb Cull pose for a picture together in between meetings with families at E&E Family Farm in Seffner on Dec. 12.
Wesley and Deb Cull pose for a picture together in between meetings with families at E&E Family Farm in Seffner on Dec. 12. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
• • •

At E&E Family Farm, he sang Jingle Bells with families. He coaxed shy kids into smiling for photos, winning them over with candy canes or a shiny pink Christmas coin. He let the jolly ho ho hos rip, inviting the children to recite the phrase with him. They threw their heads back and chuckled for the camera like a group of friends posing for Instagram shots at brunch.

With each family, Mrs. Claus shimmied over in her red dress and cape to ask, “Do you want Santa to have his mask on?”

That morning, many of the families said no. They didn’t want their Santa pictures to have such a stark visual reminder of a lonely year. Others wanted St. Nick to wear a face covering, but went bare-faced in the photos. Each got a high five, hug or a cheerful belly laugh from the man in the red suit.

“You should see the elves this year. They work 6 feet apart,” Santa Wes explained as Mrs. Claus passed out stuffed animals wrapped in crepe paper. “It makes Santa happy.”

Deb Cull, 65, who is dressed as Mrs. Claus, helps her husband Wesley Cull, 67, who is dressed as Santa, put on his mask before a photography session with a family who made the request, at E&E Family Farm in Seffner on Dec. 12.
Deb Cull, 65, who is dressed as Mrs. Claus, helps her husband Wesley Cull, 67, who is dressed as Santa, put on his mask before a photography session with a family who made the request, at E&E Family Farm in Seffner on Dec. 12. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

correction: The Culls have been married for 14 years and dating for 25. A previous version of this story incorrectly said they had been married for 25 years.