Recent reports have made clear there’s a dire Santa shortage this year. Some of it is a supply issue: There are currently not enough Santa performers, who are often belong to populations most at risk of a serious coronavirus infection. But there’s also currently a surge of demand that is exceeding even pre-pandemic levels.
Stephen Arnold, who works as a Santa in Tennessee and is president of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, estimates that demand this year is 20 percent higher than it was pre-pandemic, in 2019. The Santa booking company HireSanta told CNN that demand this year is more than double pre-pandemic levels. Vaccinated families in particular seem to be trying to make up for what was a muted 2020 holiday. This has allowed the Santas and Mrs. Clauses who are working to make more money. Arnold didn’t want to exert himself too much this year, so he raised his rate to $150 for the first half hour and $50 for every additional 15 minutes thereafter, thinking that he would get fewer gigs because of the high price. He turned out to be wrong and in early December is still getting inquiries every five to 10 minutes.
That’s the positive side of things for Santas. But on the other side is what the pandemic has done to the Santa community. One reason there aren’t enough Santas is that many have COVID-19 comorbidities. “Santas and Mrs. Clauses are generally fat people. Most of us are obese,” said Arnold. “Many of us have diabetes, a lot of us have heart conditions or bad kidneys or whatever it might be.” Although the Santa industry doesn’t closely track the deaths of performers, industry insiders have reported a higher-than-usual rate of casualties among Santas over the course of the pandemic. Arnold says that more than 55 Santas in his organization (which stands at about 1,900 members) have passed away from the coronavirus. Carlo Klemm, who works as a Santa in Alberta, Canada, runs a private Facebook group accessible only to the Santa community called Santa’s Last Ride that commemorates performers who have died in the U.S. and Canada. Posts in the group, which has about 560 members, mostly consist of obituaries that administrators and people in the community collect. Based on the obituary posts, Klemm can count more than 330 Santas who have died in 2021. “I’m appreciative of the fact that I only touch a small tip of the iceberg with these,” he said. “330 is only the people that we know of. There’s a lot more.” He also noted that not all of these have been from the coronavirus, and that this number includes amateurs and people who had previously worked as a Santa but were not active at the time of their deaths. But still, Klemm says, it’s a much higher rate than usual.
Given the higher risk among Santas, many performers opted not to work last year, and are opting to sit out this year too. “There’s not a lot of people stepping up to be Santa” this year, Klemm said. Professional Santa schools across the country have been reporting lower enrollment rates and high numbers of students choosing to drop out due to coronavirus concerns over the past two years. Arnold estimates that about 25 percent of performers in his trade group are either doing virtual appearances only or aren’t working as Santas at all in 2021, though this is less than the 50 percent he saw opt out of traditional in-person appearances last year. For those who are doing live performances, some venues are asking kids to sit on a bench a few feet in front of Santa instead of on his lap. Arnold said that most venues are doing away with the protective acrylic barriers and bubbles that were popular in 2020. Klemm has seen retailers set up log cabins where the Santas can sit to ensure that they’re separated from the kids.
Despite the seemingly never-ending pandemic, however, Arnold is hopeful for the future of the Santa profession. His group had about 2,000 members in early 2019 before it dropped to 1,500 by the end of 2020. The number has been recovering this year, though, and Arnold thinks that the group will reach full membership again in April, which he partly attributes to people quitting their day jobs as part of the Great Resignation and deciding to become Santas instead. Of the 300 people who have joined his organization in 2021, more than half of them are first-time Santas based on their application forms. That’s a much higher number of novice Santas than usual, and though he hasn’t interacted with all of them, he’s gathered from the conversations he has had that many of these new Santas are relatively young—under the age of 65—and recently retired. If it’s one thing the Santa crisis captures, it’s how deeply the pandemic has affected those on the older and the younger end of the scale. “You don’t know whether your five-year-old or six-year-old is on his last year of, ‘Is there really a Santa or not?’ ” said Arnold. “If you missed it [in 2020], you’re desperate to try to capture that experience before it’s gone.”