SALYERSVILLE, Ky. (LEX 18) — The pandemic's impact goes beyond the virus.
Millions of Americans are unemployed. We've had to social distance while debates rage across the country over restrictions and mask-wearing.
There are some who don't even believe the pandemic is real and subscribe to conspiracy theories.
Believe it or not, Santa Claus knows a thing or two about being called a myth.
That's why so many put on the red suit to embody the spirit of Christmas.
In 2017, LEX 18 visited one man in Salyersville who dresses as Santa every Christmas to greet children.
This week, we returned to Candy Cane Lane.
The gravel road of lights is tucked away just outside of downtown Salyersville. At the end of the road, Ben Gardner, dressed as St. Nick, would wave to young boys and girls passing by his home.
It's a Christmas tradition for the Gardner family to illuminate Candy Cane Lane every year. Admission is always free, because, in return, Gardner receives more than any dollar could mean.
"It's a peaceful joy that you can do something for other folks that they will enjoy, getting out and doing," said Gardner.
However, unlike our last visit in 2017, Gardner isn't donning the red suit this year.
"Santa decided to stay safe at the North Pole this year because of the virus," said Gardner.
Gardner knows all too well the impact of COVID-19. He was exposed in August and tested positive.
"Certainly don't want anyone to experience the virus as I did. It's not something that you want," said Gardner. "The main problem I think was dehydration, which landed me in the hospital."
He was hospitalized for four days and is still recovering, but at 87-years-old, he feels blessed to be home for the holidays.
"I'm still short of breath and tire easily, but apparently there are no long-term adverse effects," said Gardner.
For some kids in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, Gardner may be the only representation of Santa they meet in-person.
In a year of virtual classes and social distancing, he decided to light up his road once again to brighten even the darkest of winter days.
"And this gives them a chance to get out, and drive around, see the lights with their parents and do it safely," said Gardner. "I think that's the main reason for us to do it. Just something for the children."
When children arrive at the end of the road, Gardner stays socially distant and masked up to prevent the spread. If they have a letter for Santa, children drop it off in a mailbox.
While he may not embody Santa Claus this Christmas, Gardner makes sure the letters get to the North Pole.
"He hears them, and sees them, and if they leave a letter he'll answer it. If they leave a name and address," said Gardner.
He hopes to bring joy and light to a dreary year.
"Lights and the ornaments, displays, it's good for the children. It's something to get out and look at. But the bottom line is that it's a celebration of Christ's birth for us," said Gardner.
Keeping in mind the reason for the season, his prayer this Christmas goes beyond Salyersville. It's for all Americans to come together in a dark time.
"I think there's just so much anger that I see, and I'd love to see us heal as a country and move forward," said Gardner. "That's what I hope for. That's what I pray for."
With the arrival of a vaccine, Gardner is hopeful that next year, he'll be able to don the red suit once again to pass out candy canes and good tidings.
At the end of our visit, Gardner retrieved letters from the mailbox.
He noticed that they had a stamp in the corner of the envelope. It's a small sign of belief in Santa, which brought a tear to the eye of his helper on Candy Cane Lane.
Santa may be distant this year, but he is always watching.