Santa Claus is back — but not as fully as families might have hoped.
While 2020 came with the disappointment of Santa visits at the mall or other holiday events being distanced by Plexiglass, turned virtual or canceled altogether, this year brings a different problem: a Kris Kringle shortage.
That's due to the combination of an all-time high demand for Santa and a scarce supply — largely due to COVID fallout.
"We lost a tremendous number of Santas over the last 18 months," Mitch Allen, the Fort Worth-based founder and Head Elf at HireSanta.com, which recruits thousands of Christmas entertainers across the nation, tells Yahoo Life. In fact, of the near 8,000 Santas the company has in its database, through partners and via social media, 335 have died in 2021 alone — COVID being the cause for the vast majority, says Allen.
But even for those who are healthy, he adds, the pandemic has prompted new hesitancy to put on the red suit and white beard and return to the in-person, close-contact job — with some deciding to retire from the job altogether.
"As you can imagine, our Santa Claus entertainers are susceptible to a negative outcome if they catch COVID," Allen explains, referencing the older age and possibly overweight status of many of the men playing St. Nick.
That's all created a near-15-percent decline in HireSanta's talent pool, says Allen — and, combined with the company's 120 percent increase in Santa requests this year, meeting demand has never been more difficult.
Other recruiting companies have shared similar stories about their Santas-for-hire.
Tim Connaghan, a Long Island, NY-based Santa who plays St. Nick for Toys for Tots and is founder of the Santa school NationalSanta.com, tells Yahoo Life that of the 387 Santas who participated in the school's 2021 Red Suit Survey, 16 percent are taking this year off (while 82 percent are vaccinated and will be doing some form of Christmas work, though not as much as in years past).
Stephen Arnold, a Tennessee-based leader at the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, "the world's largest organization of professional Santas and Mrs. Clauses," according to its website, with 2,000 members, told the Associated Press he's lost 57 members due to deaths from COVID in the last year. "Most of us are overweight, diabetic, with heart conditions," Arnold, 71, a longtime Santa himself, said. "We're prime targets for a disease like COVID."
Similarly, Santa for Hire, another top recruiter for Santas and Mrs. Clauses, tells Yahoo Life through spokesman Brian Wilson that while two of the database's 400 performers died COVID-related deaths this year, a major part of the problem appears to be a "pent-up Santa demand," largely due to retailers waiting too long, because of the uncertainty, to book their Santas.
"They are just coming in late," Wilson, who's based in Orange County, explains. "They weren't sure they were going to do an event, depending on COVID restrictions," but later changed their minds, he says. "A lot of them were like, 'Thanksgiving is here and Christmas is coming quick. We need to get a sale.' Now we're getting a lot of last-minute requests."
More than 10 million U.S. households visited Santa in a mall or in a store in 2019, as GlobalData Retail's managing director, Neil Saunders, told the Associated Press recently — with nearly 73 percent of them also spending money at nearby businesses, he said. After last year's household visits to Santa dropped to 6.1 million households, Saunders added that he expects about 8.9 million households to visit Santa in person.
Adds Wilson, "Some Santas have told us they're retiring. Some do have concerns with their health and may only work with past clients. And some have passed away." Others, he says, have relocated, creating regional voids, "because now, instead of having, say, three Santas in this part of [a] state, we only have one. That's a migration that could be related to the pandemic."
Allen believes that shopping malls and holiday-event producers never anticipated a Santa shortage this season, and may now be offering limited, non-traditional hours of operation in order to meet demand.
"Big retailers reached out to us very early in the year. Most of them have Santas in those spots," explains Allen. "For those who waited later, there might be less time spent [with children] than in the past. It might not be all day, every day. It may just be the evenings or just the weekends."
As for Santas who are putting on the red suit this year, some say they are proceeding with caution.
Joe Hess, a South Dakota-based student counselor with a natural white beard, has been a Santa staple in the city of Chamberlain for several years, including in parades and at city events and in popular hangouts. This year, however, he's choosing to do limited engagements so that he and others are more comfortable.
"I would like to do it on my own timeline," he tells Yahoo Life, explaining that, previously, his Santa gigs would typically stretch from noon to 4 p.m. for a given shift. Now, he says, it feels like "too much" time in close proximity to others.
Still, Hess explains, “The whole population of South Dakota is 900,000. We're living in pretty vast lands, so Santa in this area is important."
Connaghan says he's vaccinated and is tiptoeing back into work, having recently performed at the Hollywood Christmas Parade. He encourages other Santas not only to be vaccinated but to also be rapid tested throughout the week to ensure the safety of everyone.
"I take the test myself twice a week, usually — and I check it twice," Connaghan tells Yahoo Life. He encourages others to do the same, and for parents who are worried about securing an in-person visit to double-check mall Santa hours, be flexible with your hours and even consider a virtual visit.
Another option is an oldie but goodie: Play Santa yourself.
"If you look like Santa, you should just put on the red suit," Allen suggests. "[It] will change your life, you know, to see how your children interact with Santa and how they think about Christmas … Even if you're not a great-looking Santa, children, particularly young children, won't notice."
Because this year, Connaghan points out, talking to St. Nick might be more important than ever. "Last year, we were not able to get together with friends and relatives, grandparents, parents. It didn't feel like Christmas," he says. "So this year we need Santa more than ever, to make us feel safe and make us feel comfortable, make us feel the love from our friends, our family, and to help celebrate making it through the pandemic."
That importance goes for parents as well as for kids, Hess adds. "Santa presents to parents the ability to think that next year will be good," he says, pointing to today's constant barrage of bad news. "When you see [Santa] on the street or you see him at the supermarket or you see him at the mall, I think people forget all the bad stuff that goes on in the world. It brings that promise of a new beginning."
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