This file photo taken on November 16, 2017 shows instructor James Lovell adjusting the costume of a student Santa during a training session at The Ministry of Fun Santa School in London. (AFP/Adrian Dennis)
It's late August, the long summer holidays are over and as children return to school in Britain, thoughts begin to turn to the end-of-year Christmas festivities.
But questions are already being asked about a time-honored tradition given the coronavirus outbreak and restrictions -- the visit to see Father Christmas.
James Lovell, though, has a plan, which he says will allow children to experience the magic of meeting Santa Claus while maintaining strict social distancing guidelines.
At a time when many people would usually be on the beach, Lovell, who runs the Ministry of Fun events company, has his attention firmly focused on the cold days of winter.
This year, as he has done for the past 25, he has already been preparing his 50-strong team of Santas for the coming season after a bumper 2019, when he had about 1,000 bookings.
"Normally we have got most of our bookings in the bag by August," he told AFP. "What's interesting is this year, we are at about half.
"People haven't cancelled, they're just not sure what they can do. There have been mixed messages about what's allowed. There's a lot of confusion.
"People need reassurance that Father Christmas can appear."
Elf and safety
Unliked crammed theaters, which are only partially re-opening to audiences after months of closure, Lovell likens Santa's grottos to "social bubbles".
Venues such as department stores and tourist sites are already well-versed in organizing crowds who flock to see Father Christmas.
This year they have introduced even tighter controls around crowd management to curb the close-contact spread of the virus.
Lovell says only three small tweaks to the Santa experience are needed to ensure public safety and reassure worried store owners and parents, rather than postpone it altogether.
His team of Santas will have specially created red velvet and white fur facemasks as part of their costume, which costs up to £1,000 ($1,300, 1,100 euros) and includes beards hand-made by theater props specialists.
Presents will be positioned between Santa and his young visitors to maintain a safe distance, and gifts will be put on a miniature sleigh rather than handed out directly.
For Lovell, it's essential the trip to see Santa doesn't become yet another casualty of the global pandemic.
"You can't have Christmas without Santa," he added. "We have to make this work. It's very important. A child meeting Father Christmas is a really big deal.
"We all love the idea that Father Christmas is going to bring us magic. And we deserve it more than ever. It's been a ghastly year and we need that happiness."
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