Flint Gypsies' Santa.jpg

Sarah, Nicholas and Emily Slaton, nine-year-old triplets, pose with Santa at the free photo event at Flint Gypsies in Bullard.

The coronavirus pandemic has separated loved ones from their family members in nursing homes and hospitals. Holiday precautions advised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention include having meals outdoors, limiting the number of guests, having guests bring their own food, remaining six feet apart and wearing masks when not eating.

Despite the limitations and separations, one businesswoman determined the current pandemic would not spoil the fun of Christmas pictures with Santa. With COVID-19 an obvious concern, Heather Slaton of Flint Gypsies in Bullard, searched for a way to continue the tradition of providing free pictures with Santa for area families while remaining compliant with CDC recommendations.

“We’ve always had a huge love for Christmas. My mom and myself and my sister, it’s always been a thing with us. At home, we’ve always decorated big.”

Their love of Christmas displays became an experimental offer of free photos with Santa Claus at the business owned by the trio, mother Kathy Watkins, sister Tiffany Watkins and Slaton.

“We started it in 2015 and it was a just a major hit. We, at the time, had a Jacksonville and a Flint store and we ended up doing it at both stores and it was just fabulous. We’ve continued doing it the last few years at Jacksonville and now we have a Bullard store, so we’ve been doing it at our Bullard store.

“We wanted to make it an event for anybody from any walk of life to could come and not feel like they had an obligation to buy anything or pay for anything and just enjoy it.”

Although the other locations remain closed, the Bullard store has been able to open and Slaton was resolved to find a way to continue the photos.

“When we got to looking at different options to keep Santa safe, a mask seemed so sterile. We felt like it was safest in store while shopping and just roaming around, but for pictures it seemed to dampen the whole holiday spirit.

“We looked online and tried to find some different options for shields and things like that and found some that looked like a window or, quite honestly, they were kind of ugly. It looked unwelcoming.”

Finally finding a snow globe setup, they discovered the price was far out of their reach. Searching for a way to create their own, they discovered plexiglass was in limited supply due to its use for items like shields for registers at businesses. Slaton stated they found a single glass manufacture in Dallas who was willing to cut the plexiglass for their Santa pictures and even had it ready within 24 hours.

Slaton’s father, Philip Watkins, built the bench and her mother painted the plexiglass to give it the snow globe look.

“We finished it about 3-o’clock in the morning before our Santa event on Saturday,” Slaton said.

She stated she was concerned about how well the scene would be received but, “It was an absolute hit.”

Over 500 attendants participated during the first free Santa photo event. Slaton stated children were allowed to remove their masks for the pictures. Everyone appeared happy despite not being able to sit on Santa’s lap.

“I did not have one child who was upset, seemed disappointed in it, nothing. They were all just fabulous. They would tap the glass and talk to Santa and he would touch the glass back. How it was so magical, I don’t know, but it was.

“The one thing we saw this year that I was surprised at...there was far less kids crying,” Slaton said.

Even Santa was pleased with the event. His fear was whether or not he’d be able to hear the children and understand their names and Christmas requests, but did not become a problem.

Although she plans to have a day where pictures can be taken with the Grinch, no date has been set for that event. The next opportunity for pictures with Santa is tentatively set from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 19.

Flint Gypsies is a women’s clothing boutique. The business maintains a website, flintgypsies.net, and a Facebook page. The Bullard location is at 301 Hwy 69 and can be reached by phone at (903) 372-4847.

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