By Faith Karimi, CNN
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. But you might not see jolly old St. Nick at as many holiday gatherings this year.
Demand for appearances by Santa Claus at parties, parades and other events has skyrocketed this holiday season while the number of trained and available Santas has gone down — yet another disruption in the supply chain caused by the pandemic.
Companies that provide Santas for holiday events are scrambling to meet the demand, says Mitch Allen, founder and head elf at Hire Santa, a company based in Fort Worth, Texas, which helps clients book Santas across the country. Allen said his company has 10% fewer Santa Clauses available this year while requests for Santas have more than doubled when compared to pre-pandemic levels.
“There’s a huge demand,” Allen said. “We’ve been sold out on weekends for over a month, which is unusual. Usually, we get sold out after Thanksgiving.”
Allen attributes the surge in demand to event planners who are weary of the lingering pandemic and want to brighten holiday festivities to make up for lost time.
The shortage may not be immediately apparent at shopping malls because a lot of malls booked Santas in the first quarter of the year, Allen said. But some retailers’ crop of Santas are stretched thin, meaning they must ask Santas to work longer shifts or limit the hours they are available to the public, he said.
Enrollment at Santa schools is down
Susen Mesco, who’s operated a professional Santa school in Denver for nearly four decades and dons a Mrs. Claus suit herself, says she’s not getting much sleep due to the Santa shortage.
“The bookings are overwhelming this year. I’m getting calls for a Santa about every eight minutes,” she said. “But it’s not all bad news. It also means that people are emerging from the other side of the pandemic. Now that we’ve all had two years to figure out and adjust to the pandemic, more people want to be together.”
Mesco attributed the shortages to several factors. Santa schools nationwide saw lower enrollments in 2020 and 2021 due to coronavirus fears, which translated to a smaller field of qualified Santas, she said. Her school alone lost 120 potential Santa trainees.
“Nobody wanted to travel (for the classes) or to be in a conference setting,” she said.
Her Santas take 180 hours of lessons in a wide range of areas, ranging from sign language and child development to how to curl their beards. They also are briefed on the best answers to common questions kids ask.
Mesco said the pandemic also led many long-time Santas to hang up their red coats.
“Some of them just said, ‘I’ll retire now,’ ” she said. “I’ve had 15 Santas drop off their Santa suit and say, ‘Find a good home for it.’ “
Some other Santas have decided it’s a good time to take a break, said Tim Connaghan, nicknamed the “National Santa,” who appears in major holiday parades and is a chief Santa for the Marines’ Toys for Tots campaign. Connaghan also owns a Santa booking agency; he said he’s surveyed his fellow Santas and found that 18% are taking 2021 off.
It’s been a tragic year for Santas
The average working Santa is in his mid-60s and weighs 248 pounds, Connaghan said, making them at high risk of coronavirus infections.
More than 335 Santas have died this year from coronavirus and other ailments, according to Allen of Hire Santa.
“Those are the ones we know about. And there’s more last year,” he said, adding that not all the deaths have been related to Covid-19.
Mesco said her booking agency has lost more than 50 Santas to the pandemic.
Being Santa in a pandemic comes with a lot of added responsibility. Connaghan said his booking agency requires Santas to have proof of vaccination, and he himself takes a coronavirus rapid test twice a week.
“We have to be safe,” he said. “I have hundreds of Santas doing self tests.”
Even so, some Santas are sitting out the pandemic because they’re fearful of being exposed to hundreds of potentially germy children. Connaghan said almost all the Santas he surveyed said that children sneeze or cough on them daily, making the extra safety measures crucial.
Over the past year some mall Santas have been forced to wave at children from behind plexiglass. Others have greeted children via live video calls.
Racially diverse Santas are in even shorter supply
The Saint Nick shortage (Santa Pause?) is even more acute for Santas of color.
The Santa Claus industry is gradually becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, and more Santas are learning American Sign Language, but it’s still not enough, Allen said.
“We still have shortages when it comes to diversity,” he said. “For every 500 White Santas, we have one Black Santa.”
Last month Old Navy partnered with Connaghan, along with Dion Sinclair, known as Santa Dee or “The Real Black Santa,” and others to launch a 30-minute online training program for people who want to serve as Santas. The program encourages participants from all backgrounds, ethnicities and cultural heritages.
“Diversity is a current challenge in the Santa industry,” Old Navy said in a statement. “Less than 5% of all professional Santas in the US identify as people of color, while almost half of children under the age of 15 in the US identify as nonwhite.”
A company spokesperson said the program has trained “hundreds of inclusive Santas thus far,” but did not provide a specific number.
But next year is looking better
The owners of Santa booking agencies have advice for any event planner who is struggling to find a Santa this holiday season.
They urge flexibility: Except for Christmas week, Santas are easier to book during the week than on weekends. And in a pinch virtual Santas are more easily available than real-world ones.
Mesco said she’s encouraging people this year to schedule parties around Santa’s availability.
“People are getting hotels and caterers, and then saying let’s get a Santa,” she said. “That might not work.”
She also urged people to be open to having Santa make visits all the way up until the New Year.
“I don’t consider it a shortage for Santas. It’s more of an overwhelming demand, because people are hopeful,” she said. “They want their Christmas back, they want their festivities. It’s a beautiful testament to the American spirit.”
And things are looking better for 2022. The Santa shortage has led to a rush of big retailers and other clients already booking for next year’s Christmas, Allen said.
And potential Santas are once again enrolling in Santa schools for next year. Mesco said Wednesday that 30 people had signed up in the past few days.
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