Every Christmas Eve, Santa Claus has to travel incredible distances to deliver presents to children around the world. Bob Lee, also known as the Audubon Santa, is uniquely qualified for such treks. He has completed the Boston Marathon and the Lake Placid Ironman. This December, however, Lee, 62, will face his greatest challenge: to make Christmas special for children and adults during the pandemic.
Lee is a paradox. At 6 foot 2 and 240 pounds, he doesn’t look like a distance runner. With his sparkling blue eyes, a full head of white hair, and a long white beard that seems to glow, he’s more a cross between Santa and a pro-football linebacker. A recently retired teacher and former Audubon Board of Education president and vice president, Lee is currently director of safety and public affairs for his Camden County hometown of Audubon.
Upon retiring as a teacher, Lee, who is married with two children, decided to try his hand at Santa Claus. With only one Santa season under his considerable belt, he has already played Santa on TV’s Shark Tank, where Barbara Corcoran tugged on his beard; is the official Santa of Villanova University; and has made Santa appearances up and down the East Coast, including one visit to Pennsylvania, where he arrived via an Army helicopter. This year, for the second time, he will serve as the Santa for a large North Jersey mall (which for contractual reasons he cannot name).
A former professional opera singer, Lee’s chants of “Merry Christmas” and “ho-ho-ho” so they reverberate like an echo across a canyon. He can’t imagine a time when the world needed Santa—and the joy he brings—more than it does now.
Lee has seen pretty much everything a Santa can witness. One memorable experience involved an elderly woman carrying an urn. With tears in her eyes, the woman explained that the urn contained her late husband’s ashes. She wanted her dearly departed to visit Santa for a final time. “I really struggled with that one,” Lee recalls. He consoled the woman as best he could.
He has learned to take the bad with the good. Once, a little girl emptied her bladder on his lap. Fortunately, it was near the end of the night. Lee persevered until his shift concluded. He recalls one little boy who asked for a Red Ryder BB gun—just as Ralphie had in A Christmas Story. “I love A Christmas Story,” Lee says. “It took all my willpower not to reply the way Santa had in the movie: ‘You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!’”
Lee knows the Santa experience will be different in this pandemic year. The mall will require Lee to take a Covid-19 test prior to starting and to quarantine between shifts. He will also take voluntary tests every other week. Like other Santas, he’ll have to wear a face mask and work with a plexiglass shield between himself and the visiting children. Photos will be by reservation only, and the waiting line will be limited to five families at a time—socially distanced, of course. Some malls, Lee reports, are considering placing Santa inside a protective snow globe.
At home in Audubon, Lee will offer a virtual Santa experience for kids, available everywhere via the Jingle Ring website. He is also booked to appear in a TV commercial for electronics retailer P.C. Richard.
“I can assure children of all ages that, despite the pandemic, Santa is still very much coming to town,” Lee says, sounding ever so jolly.Click here to leave a comment