Ask any New York City kid and they’ll tell you: Santa Claus is an ontological paradox. He’s real and there’s only one of him and, yet, there are many. You’ve seen them – or you used to see them – waving and hollering ho-ho-ho at the local mall or Macy’s. But how is Santa faring now that Covid has moved so much of life online?

I emailed the Macy’s publicity department and asked if I could pose this urgent question to their version of the man himself. Of course, Macy’s has been living off Santa since the 1947 movie, Miracle on 34th Street, in which its sweet naif of a leading man winds up working for the store. (Go to the 1:00 minute mark in this video to hear Santa introduce himself like a genial James Bond. “My name is Kringle,” he says. “Kris Kringle.”) But Macy’s wasn’t having it. Their reply was as chilly as a snowman’s bum:

Santa is gearing up for the holiday season ahead and is not available for interviews.

“Fine!” I cried from my empty room to no one because Covid. I then continued, “Well, I’ll just talk to Rory Scholl,” before sneezing prophylactically into my elbow. Adding context, I concluded, “He's been a Santa in New York for 15 years."

Listen to Jim O'Grady's radio story on WNYC:

Scholl lives in Astoria but has worked all over town while repping Santa, from Wall Street bonus parties to uptown holiday soirees to off-kilter settings like the one in the basement of the now-defunct Christmas Village in Midtown Manhattan. Scholl says the store’s year-round winter wonderland was crammed with “creepy animatronic elves that had been Shanghaied from all over America.” His job was to lead each ticket-buying family on a tour of this underground realm, despite its Westworld vibe. But he said that didn’t matter because little kids lose sight of their surroundings once the bearded one in the red suit enters the room.

It’s the part of performing live as Santa that Scholl misses most — the wondering eyes of a child. “There’s nothing like the excitement on their faces when you turn the corner and they actually see you,” he said. “They believe!”

Rory Scholl

He also enjoys it when a kid is accompanied by their jaded older siblings. “I get them to call me Santa and they start to come around and then the whole family gets in on it and it’s fun.” Moral: Not even tween scorn can withstand cosplay with the North Pole’s alpha elf.

Less so on Zoom. “It just isn’t the same online,” Scholl said. “You make an appointment so the kid is expecting it, which is different from meeting in person. There’s not the same impact.”

And yet, what choice do we have?

Scholl, who makes his living as a musician and comedian when not dressing up as Santa, has lately been booking sessions with children through JibJab, the online entertainment company. In past years, he’s worked with various agencies around Christmastime to video chat with kids in the hospital, which has prepared him for the workarounds of Covid. “I’ve talked to sick children all over the world: England, Japan. I tell them they’re special, that Santa doesn’t hop online and chat with just anyone.”

Scholl says that in popular spots like Santaland at Macy’s, children can wait for hours in the midst of hundreds of families before grabbing a fleeting moment of confidential lap time. By contrast, an online session will promptly put a child face-to-face with the mythical man who holds the naughty-and-nice list, mano-a-niño style. It’s intermediated by a screen but that’s not half bad given that we’re living in a pandemic.

The arrangement also has perks for the Santa from Astoria. They include an intra-apartment commute and being able to sit at his laptop partially costumed. “I can wear Bermuda shorts or sweatpants that say ‘Dallas Cowboys’ on the side,” he revealed exclusively to WNYC / Gothamist. “The kids don't know.”

The only problem is when some over-excited scamp will ask him to get up and out of his chair, which would break the festive spell by showing him half-clad in athleisure wear. “If they say, ‘Santa, stand up and do yoga with us!,’ I'm screwed. Then I'm like, ‘Well, Santa's back went out.’"

It can happen. You try schlepping a bag of presents for every person in the world.

Scholl said one thing that hasn’t changed in the Zoom era is the need to set a boundary when a kid pulls a parental end-around to plead for a wildly intemperate present. "A kid will say to me, ‘My mom won't let me have a gun but you will, right? And I have to say, ‘No. No, I won't.’

Scholl doesn’t have children himself but working as Santa during Covid has deepened his appreciation for mothers and fathers and other adults who’ve been caring for kids under difficult conditions. He makes sure to end his visits with this message: “Be patient with your parents. They're doing the right thing.”