Santa is back in town with inflation, inclusion on his mind

Don’t look for plastic room dividers or faraway benches this year when you visit Santa. The jolly old elf is back, pre-pandemic style, and he’s got some pressing issues on his mind.

Santa booker has registered a 30% increase in demand this holiday season over last year, after losing about 15% of its performers to retirement or death during the pandemic, founder and head elf Mitch Allen said.

He has a Santa database of several thousand with appearances at New York’s Bloomingdale flagship store, several Marriott properties, and other locations across the US. way, he said, but Santa may choose to mask.

Another major Santa agency, Cherry Hill Programs, has regained pre-pandemic booking numbers for their roughly 1,400 Santas working in more than 600 malls and other places this year, spokesman Chris Landtroop said.

“I can’t even explain how excited we are to see everyone’s smiles in all locations this season without anything covering those beautiful faces,” she said.

Cherry Hill Santas are also free to wear masks, Landtroop said.

Among striking Santas who still keep their distance? There will be no round visits to Macy’s flagship store in New York’s Herald Square. Santa Claus is sitting behind his desk.

Some Santas who have stayed home over health concerns for the past two years have returned to the ho ho ho game, but Allen is desperately trying to replenish his pipeline with new performers.

Inflation has also taken a bite out of Santa Claus. Many are older, on fixed incomes, and travel long distances to don the red suit. They spend hundreds on their costumes and other equipment.

“We charge the customers a little more and we pay our Santas a little more as well,” Allen said.

Bookings for many Santa Clauses were made months in advance and some operate year round. Allen’s Santas will make $5,000 to $12,000 this season.

A few Santas told The Associated Press that they’re not worried about the cost, though. They are not in the Santa profession to make money, but are doing it out of sheer joy.

Allen and other agencies are juggling more requests for inclusive Santas, such as Black, Deaf, and Hispanic performers. Allen also has a female Santa on speed dial.

“I haven’t been caught by the kids yet and, with one exception, the parents as well,” said 48-year-old Melissa Rickard, who stepped into the role in her early 20s when Santa was hired by her father’s lodge. got sick.

“Having a kid who can’t see that I’m a woman in some sense is the ultimate compliment because it means I’m doing Santa justice. It’s killing my husband,” added Rickard, who lives outside of Little Rock, Arkansas. “I know there are more of us.”

By mid-November, Rickard had more than 100 gigs scheduled, including through Hire Santa.

“A lot of it is word of mouth,” she says. “It’s ‘Hey, have you seen Lady Santa?'”

Rickard charges about $175 an hour as Santa, depending on the job, donating all but her fuel money to charity. And her beard? Jack her.

Eric Elliott’s meticulously groomed white beard is the real deal. He and his Mrs. Claus, wife Moeisha Elliott, turned pro this year after first taking on the volunteer role in 2007. Both are retired military personnel.

They spent weeks in formal Claus training. One of the skills they picked up was American Sign Language and other ways to accommodate people with disabilities. Their work included trips to disaster areas with the Texas-based nonprofit Lone Star Santas to bring a little cheer.

The Elliotts, who are black, say it wasn’t easy breaking into the top Santas as new pros and color clauses. To some people, Eric said, “We understand we’re not Santa Claus for you.”

The Santa Experience at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, is staffed with six Saint Nicks, including two who are black and the first Asian Santa. Visits in Spanish and Cantonese are provided.

With smaller jobs, including house calls, the Elliotts have seen rising prices hit some people hard. They have lowered their rates at times when they notice people are struggling.

“People have issues eating alone, but they don’t want to miss out on the experience,” Eric said. Sometimes he said, “You’ll meet them and say, ‘Go ahead and hang on to that.’ I know you worked hard for that.’”

For other clients, the Elliotts charge anywhere from $150 to $300 per hour.

Charles Graves, a rare, professionally deaf Santa in New Braunfels, Texas, said through an interpreter that he was inspired to grow his beard and don the suit, in part because of awkward encounters with hearing Santas as a child.

“As a kid I was really excited to get a present, but then you just go away and think, there’s no connection there. Kids look at me now and they’re like, wow, you know, there’s a connection to deaf culture there. And I can always connect with the hearing kids, too,” said Graves, a spry Santa of 52.

Graves, who has a day job at a school for deaf children, was also trained as a Santa Claus. He works as Santa Claus with interpreters. Breaking in has been difficult and expensive, he says, but “this is something very, very important to me.”

By mid-November, he had more than a dozen performances, including a parade in Santa Paula, California, a mall in Austin, Texas, and Morgan’s Wonderland, a non-profit theme park in San Antonio. He also does some Zoom visits.

Among Santa’s rising costs this year are his duds. The price of suits, from tailored to ready-to-wear, is up about 25%, said 72-year-old Stephen Arnold, an old Santa who heads the more than 2,000-strong International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas.

“Most of the artists I know are increasing their rates, mainly because of transportation, accommodation and material costs,” he said. “Personally, I’m raising my rates a little bit for new clients, but I’m holding prices this year for my repeat appearances.”

Arnold, who is in Memphis, Tennessee, charges $250 to $350 an hour. Others in his organization, depending on location and experience, charge anywhere from $100 to $500 an hour, the latter in major cities like Los Angeles. Some, he said, don’t know their value and lowball it at $50 or $75 an hour.

As for the pandemic, Arnold has not yet heard from his clients about it, compared to last year and 2020, when he worked in a snow globe. The Santa Clauses he knows seem imperturbable.

“I’m surprised how few people are concerned about it,” Arnold said. “I visit my wife twice a day in a nursing home. I am diabetic. I mean, most of us are old fat men.”

— Leanne Italy, The Associated Press

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