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Thomaston Santa Doesn’t Let COVID Stop His Sleigh

Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
Jacob Grant and Angelina Healy have their picture taken with Santa and his sleigh in Thomaston on Dec. 22. Santa George McCleary makes socially distanced visits to families hauling a giant Christmas display.

George McCleary is a horticulturist and a vegetable farmer. Around this time of year, he’s also a Santa. He’s been putting on the red coat for about four decades. But he’s now 66 and borderline diabetic, so he wasn’t sure how he could safely do his Santa visits in the middle of the pandemic.

“A month before Santa season, I was trying to decide how we’re going to do some of these visits because a lot of them were in people’s houses,” he said. “And my doctor just said no, you can’t go in their houses.”

So McCleary bought a new laptop and a microphone. He was about to send out his availability for doing his Santa visits virtually, but then he had another idea.

“Well, maybe we could get a trailer, put a sleigh on it and go visit people,” he said.

COVID-19 has put a damper on some holiday traditions this year, and it also put a lot of local Santas out of work. Some are shielding behind plexiglass at the mall or doing virtual visits, but many, because of their age, are sitting out the season completely.

But not McCleary. A day after he came up with the idea, he found a red trailer for sale on the side of the road. He bought a sleigh, mounted it on the trailer with some lights and decorations and posted a note to a local Facebook group about doing Santa visits.

Credit Joe Amon / Connecticut Public
Santa George McCleary, president of the Connecticut Society of Santas, and Mrs. Claus, his wife, Carol, are on their way to make socially distanced Santa visits to families in Thomaston. George hauls a makeshift trailer sleigh with a giant Christmas display into driveways across his town to sing songs, tell stories and deliver gifts.

“The first night I got 50 calls. ‘Can you come to our house? Can you come to our house?’ -- and it just started, and it’s rolling, snowballing,” he said. 

McCleary, who is president of the Connecticut Society of Santas, said most of his members are staying home this season because of the pandemic. 

Even so, people still need Santa.

“When we’re singing and get the kids to dance -- the smiles on those parents’ faces is just a treasure,” McCleary said. “Even when we’re driving down the road on this trailer. We’re going down Route 8, someone will start to go by, put their brake on, they’ll pull up and roll their windows down, and out come the cellphones, click, click, click, click, and they’re laughing.”

Credit Joe Amon / Connecticut Public
Three-year-olds Angelina Healy and Jacob Grant dance with Santa George McCleary on Dec. 22, 2020, in their driveway in Wolcott.

All his visits are free, but McCleary sometimes takes donations from parents to help pay off the trailer and the sleigh. As he climbed into his truck for his 10th visit that day, McCleary said the display on his trailer is a bit dimmer after water on the roads from last week’s nor’easter shorted out half his lights.  

“What I’m doing is not for every Santa,” he said, explaining that he has unique skills because of his work on the farm. “The biggest thing the farm has given me is being able to back this trailer up … I’m used to backing farm wagons and all kinds of equipment up my whole life, so this is like second nature to me.”

Credit Joe Amon / Connecticut Public
Angelina Healy, 3, reaches up for her extra good coin from Santa George McCleary.

At his next stop, McCleary pulls up his truck to a group of kids and parents. They sing for him as he plugs in his lights and climbs up onto the trailer. 

He’s flanked by Mrs. Claus -- his wife, Carol, in real life -- and a friend who plays an elf. McCleary tells the crowd he’s using his “everyday” sleigh right now -- you know, the one he takes to the grocery store. 

He holds a lengthy Q&A session, and one child asks what will happen if they start commercial mining at the North Pole. He assures the crowd that Santa owns the land. 

Credit Ryan Caron King / Connecticut Public
Angelina Healy watches Thomaston resident Santa George McCleary on his trailer sleigh. McCleary rigged up his trailer when his doctor told him it would be unsafe to do his regular Santa duties.

After McCleary handed out a few presents, the parents sneaking into his bag, he carefully backed his trailer out of the driveway and made his way to the next stop -- his 11th. 

Thomaston resident Margarit Saghafi said she was happy McCleary could be a part of her family’s holiday. She’s a nurse in the COVID unit at a local hospital, and she and her husband got the virus earlier this year.  

“It’s been a difficult year ... but things like this lighten the mood and make it special,” she said.  

Saghafi said she enjoyed seeing her kids’ excitement as much as the kids enjoyed seeing Santa himself.  

Credit Joe Amon / Connecticut Public
Gunnar Saghafi, 6, looks up to Santa George McCleary after receiving a gift on Dec. 22 in Thomaston.
Credit Joe Amon / Connecticut Public
Santa George McCleary and Mrs. Claus, his wife, Carol, sing to a group of families in Thomaston.
Credit Joe Amon / Connecticut Public
Santa George McCleary gathers gifts from his sleigh for children in Thomaston during a distanced driveway visit.
Credit Joe Amon / Connecticut Public
Santa George McCleary stands atop his “everyday” sleigh that he tells the kids he uses to get around town.
Credit Ryan Caron King / Connecticut Public
Santa George McCleary's profile is illuminated by a spotlight he attached to his sleigh trailer. He said because of COVID, he thinks kids need Santa now more than ever.

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