image captionPaula-Jayne Tate said meeting Santa would have been a “magical” end to a terrible year for Kaidence, who is recovering from brain surgery
When Paula-Jayne Tate won a competition for her family to visit Santa Claus in a County Donegal village, she screamed with joy.
The mother-of-four was particularly delighted for her five-year-old daughter, Kaidence, who was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus, a condition that causes a build-up of fluid in the brain.
She said meeting Father Christmas would have been a “magical” end to a terrible year for Kaidence, who is recovering from multiple brain surgeries.
The Tates, from Newtownabbey, County Antrim, are among many families across Northern Ireland who have had to rethink their annual visits to visit Santa this Christmas due to the pandemic.
Kaidence, who has been shielding with her family since March, also missed last year’s festivities due to illness, her mother said.
image captionKaidence Tate is looking forward to a phone call from Santa instead of her usual visit to his grotto
“It has been a very difficult year and planning to see Santa meant the world to us,” said Paula-Jayne.
“We have not had any celebrations at all this year - no birthday, Easter or Halloween parties - so seeing Santa would have been magical.
“The timing was also good because Kaidence is doing so well at the moment.
“It would have been the perfect end to a terrible year with the hope that 2021 will bring more positivity.”
image captionKaidence with her sister, Maddison, and brother, Shaye, during a previous trip to see Santa
Paula-Jayne said the family hoped to organise a telephone call from Santa in place of their usual visit to the grotto.
Restrictions both sides of the border
Pat Doherty, from Donegal’s Lapland in Ballyliffin, said it was difficult to let families like the Tates down.
In the past, he said they had catered for up to 17,000 visitors, but had only accepted 3,000 bookings this year due to Covid-19.
“Our bookings start to come in in August and by September this year we stopped taking new bookings because of the way things were going [with the virus] in Donegal,” he said.
November bookings had been cancelled due to restrictions in the Republic of Ireland, while Stormont’s restrictions have hit December bookings as most visitors to Ballyliffin Lapland travel from Northern Ireland, said Mr Doherty.
image captionThe Donegal Lapland normally accepts thousands of visitors
“We spent a month building and planning the village, and we were ready to go.
“We are waiting to see what happens next. There is nothing else we can do.”
Claudine Owens, who has five children, had been looking forward to meeting Santa in a rural cottage which has also been shut down.
Mrs Owens, from Seaforde, County Down, is disappointed they will have to forego many of their family traditions this year.
“I felt like it would be something normal and exciting after a hard year,” she said.
“Visits to Santa are special. I keep all the photographs of our visits every year in a box, so it is sad.
image captionThe Owens family had been due to visit Santa in a cottage
“But it has also made me realise how fortunate we have been in other years to do all the lovely things we do before Christmas.”
‘It’s a huge deal’
Hugh Black, manager of the Tower Centre, Ballymena, said the shopping centre’s Santa grotto had not been able to open yet due to restrictions on indoor visitor attractions.
“We had 5,500 children through the grotto last year,” he said. “That is how many disappointed families we will have if it can’t go ahead at all.
“It is a huge deal.”
image captionSanta in the Tower Centre is part of the Christmas tradition for many
Mr Black remained optimistic the centre would be able to open the grotto if restrictions on non-essential services are lifted as planned on 11 December.
In the meantime, Father Christmas is reading children’s stories in weekly videos posted on the centre’s social media platforms, which Mr Black said gave children “a chance to see Santa in their homes”.
Thousands of teddy bears
Garden centre owner Robin Mercer said he was disappointed to cancel the visits of hundreds of families who had booked appointments with Santa during this two-week circuit breaker.
Hillmount Garden Centre’s grotto had been adapted to enable social distancing, including larger rooms, a booking system and temperature testing, said Mr Mercer.
image captionRobin Mercer is disappointed his Santa’s grotto cannot open due to tightened restrictions
“It is a big responsibility to host Santa, we feel like we are letting families down, even if it is out of our control,” he said.
“It’s not just for ourselves, it’s for all the other places that do Santa’s grottos.”
Mr Mercer said he remained hopeful there would be some easing of restrictions after the circuit-breaker, allowing at least some hopeful children to get their wish of seeing Santa this year.
However, one thing is for certain, some children may not be able to visit Santa this year, but he will still be leaving presents under the tree on 25 December.