NEW YORK (AP) — Don’t look for plastic partitions or distant benches when you visit Santa Claus this year. The jolly old elf is back, pre-pandemic style, and he’s got some pressing issues on his mind.
Santa booker HireSanta.com has seen a 30 percent increase in demand this Christmas season compared to last year after losing about 15 percent of its performers to retirement or death during the pandemic, the founder and elf said principal Mitch Allen.
It has a database of several thousand Santas performing at Bloomingdale’s flagship store in New York, various Marriott properties and other locations across the US. Most of Allen’s clients have moved back to children in shifts. and don’t consider COVID-19 in a major way, he said, but Santa may choose to disguise himself.
Another large Santa agency, Cherry Hill Programs, is back to pre-pandemic booking numbers for the 1,400 Santas working this year at more than 600 malls and other locations, spokesman Chris Landtroop said .
“I can’t even begin to explain how excited we are to see everyone’s smiles in all the locations this season, with nothing covering those beautiful faces,” she said.
Cherry Hill Santas are also free to wear masks, Landtroop said.
Among the remarkable estates that still keep their distance? There will be no visits to the Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square in New York. Santa Claus is seated behind his desk.
Some Santas who have stayed home for the past two years out of concern for their health have returned to the ho ho ho game, but Allen is desperately trying to fill his channel 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 suits and other accessories.
“We’re charging customers a little more and we’re also paying Santa a little more,” Allen said.
Many Santas are booked months in advance, and some work year-round. Allen’s Santa will earn $5,000 to $12,000 for the season.
Several Santas told The Associated Press they weren’t bothered by the costs. I’m not in Santa’s job to make money, I’m in it for the joy of it.
Allen and other agencies are juggling multiple requests for inclusive Santas, such as black, deaf and Spanish-speaking performers. Allen also has a female Santa Claus on speed dial.
“I haven’t been caught by the kids yet and, with one exception, by the parents,” said Melissa Rickard, 48, who stepped into the role in her 20s when Santa was employed by her father’s lodge. feel sick.
“Having a child who can’t say I’m a woman in a sense is the ultimate compliment because it means I’m doing Santa justice. My husband is screwing it up,” added Rickard, who lives outside Little Rock, Arkansas. “I know there are more of us out there.”
By mid-November, Rickard had more than 100 gigs in a row through Hire Santa and other means.
“A lot of it is word of mouth,” she said. “It’s ‘Hey, have you seen the female Santa?’
Rickard charges about $175 an hour as Santa, depending on the job, and donates all but her fuel money to charity. And her beard? Yak hair.
Eric Elliott’s neatly groomed white beard is the real deal. He and his Mrs. Claus, wife Moeisha Elliott, turned professional this year after first taking on volunteer roles in 2007. Both are retired military.
They spent weeks in a formal training for Claus. Among the skills they acquired was American Sign Language and other ways to accommodate people with disabilities. Their work has included trips to disaster areas with the nonprofit Lone Star Santas in Texas to spread a little cheer.
The Elliotts, who are black, say it wasn’t easy breaking into Santa’s first tier as rookie professionals and black clauses. To some people, Eric said, “We understand we’re not Santa Claus for you.”
The Santa Experience at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., has six Saint Nicks, including two who are black and its first Asian Santa. Tours are offered in Spanish and Cantonese.
Working smaller jobs, including home visits, the Elliotts saw how the price hikes hit some people hard. They have lowered their rates at times when they feel people are struggling.
“People have issues with just the food, but they don’t want to miss out on the experience,” Eric said. Sometimes he would say, “You’ll meet with them and say, “Go ahead and stick with it. I know you worked hard for this.”
For other clients, Elliotts charges between $150 and $300 per hour.
Charles Graves, a deaf and rare professional Santa Claus from New Braunfels, Texas, said through an interpreter that he was inspired to grow his beard and don the costume, in part, by awkward encounters with Santa who heard when he was a child.
“As a kid, I was really excited to get a gift, but then you just walk away and you’re like there’s no connection there. Kids look at me now and say, wow, you know, there’s a connection there with deaf culture. And I can always connect with hearing kids, too,” said Graves, a 52-year-old Santa Claus.
Graves, who has a day job at a school for deaf children, also received training to be Santa Claus. He works as Santa Claus with performers. Getting in was difficult and expensive, he says, but “this is something very, very important to me.”
By mid-November, he had more than a dozen concerts, including a parade in Santa Paula, California, a mall in Austin, Texas, and at Morgan’s Wonderland, a nonprofit accessible theme park in San Antonio. He also does some Zoom visits.
Among Santa’s rising costs this year are his weaknesses. The cost of costumes, from custom to ready-to-wear, has risen about 25 percent, said Stephen Arnold, 72, a longtime Santa who heads the International Brotherhood of Bearded Santas, with over 2,000 people.
“Most performers I know are raising their rates, mostly because of the cost of transportation, accommodation and materials,” he said. “Personally, I’m raising my rates a bit for new customers, but I’m keeping the prices this year for my repeat gigs.”
Arnold, who is based in Memphis, Tenn., charges between $250 and $350 an hour. Others in his organization, depending on location and experience, charge anywhere from $100 to $500 an hour, the latter in big cities like Los Angeles. Some, he said, don’t know their value and discount it to $50 or $75 an hour.
As for the pandemic, Arnold hasn’t heard a word about it from his customers compared to last year and 2020 when he worked inside a snow globe. The Santas he knows seem displeased.
“I’m surprised how few people are concerned about it,” Arnold said. “I visit my wife twice a day in a nursing facility. I am diabetic. I mean, most of us are old and fat.”
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