Elephants in Thailand wearing Santa hats and surgical masks passed out hand gel, face masks and balloons to students at a school’s annual Christmas party, a COVID-era twist on a 15-year tradition in the Buddhist majority country. “I’m so excited because an event like this only happens once a year and I think my school is the only place with elephant Santas,” said elementary school student, Beyapha Mhonsuwan. The celebration at the Jirasartwitthaya school in Ayutthaya, north of Bangkok, has run for more than 15 years and was especially important the last two years amid the COVID-19 pandemic and its virtual learning and lockdowns. “We know students have been stressed because of online classes, so we are hoping this event can make them happy and encourage them to come to school,” said the event’s organiser Reangrhongbaht Meepan from the Ayutthaya Elephant Palace. Thai schools closed schools again in April this year and rolled out vaccinations for high school students in October, ahead of staggered reopenings and alternating days of attendance. On Friday, only 30 percent of classrooms were filled at Jirasartwitthaya. “I’m so glad that I got a balloon from the elephant. My heart is pounding very fast,” said student Biuon Greham, as other children took photos and selfies with the elephants, Thailand’s national animal. Thailand is 98 percent Buddhist, but it celebrates Christmas as part of the year-end holiday season. Coronavirus cases in Thailand peaked in August this year, with 2.2 million total infections so far and 21,501 deaths.