Hundreds of Santas flock to the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School to perfect their craft. We follow Pat Russell during his Santa training.
In a year like no other, even Santa Claus may find himself out of work.
A visit to the mall to sit on the jolly old elf’s lap may be yet another tradition knocked to the wayside by COVID-19, as wary parents keep their children home. And while that’s bad news for kids, it may be worse news for all those Santas who count on gigs at department stores and office Christmas bashes to earn extra cash – or, in some cases, a big chunk of their annual income.
Mike Hadrych exchanged his jacket and tie for a red Santa suit more than a decade ago, after he retired and began to spend the early days of winter listening to kids’ wish lists.
He’s made up to 70 appearances during a single year. But as he prepares for the first holiday season since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Hadrych says his phone is barely ringing.
“I normally have 20 to 30 bookings, and right now I have two,” said Hadrych, 72, who lives with his family in Canoga Park, California. “So I expect it to be really, really slow …There’s just a lot of unknowns right now.”
Though many retailers and organizations are still finalizing plans, it currently looks like in-person Santa bookings will be down “anywhere from 25% to 40%” this holiday season, says Mitch Allen, founder of HireSanta.com, which taps a database of roughly 2,000 entertainers to place Santa Claus at events and venues worldwide.
A mall Santa with “a real beard, real belly, real laugh,” can make anywhere between $5,000 and $10,000 working through November and December, Allen says. For many Santa Claus entertainers who are on a fixed income, that extra cash is crucial.
Often, “these gentlemen are retired … and so this loss of income will be substantial,” Allen says. “They’ve talked to me about how this is going to be a really tough season because of that.”
Other Santas work as storytellers or perform different characters for audiences year round. But those roles largely disappeared because of shutdowns caused by COVID-19, making this holiday season even more critical for them to make ends meet.
Hadrych is among those who have earned more than $10,000 playing St. Nick, typically starting in November and finishing up his rounds in early January.
“It’s nothing to sneeze at,” he says of the money, adding that ticking off kids’ wish lists also allows him to tick off a few bills. “The income I make is enough to pay off our insurance … and our property taxes. So it comes in handy.”
But, he adds, “I am losing income this year.”
A Christmas with no Santa?
Not all malls and party hosts are saying no to having Santa appear live.
“Santa is coming to a Simon shopping center near you,” Ali Slocum, spokeswoman for mall owner Simon Property Group, said in an emailed statement.
The DeVargas Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, also still plans to have Santa in person, with a plexiglass shield that can provide distance between the kids and St. Nick, but still allow them to pose for that annual photo.
“We’ve always had Santa,’’ said Katy Fitzgerald, the center’s senior project manager, adding that a survey of shoppers found they still wanted to be able to take photos with him in person this year. “It’s … an important tradition.’’
But amid concerns about spread of the virus, including the need to maintain social distancing, many venues are reducing the number of hours Santa will be on site, Allen says, while “a few are extending the hours” to allow for extra cleaning and other safety precautions.
Michael Howe has portrayed Santa Claus off and on for 27 years. But after retiring last June from his career as a middle school computer teacher, Howe, who lives in Reed City, Michigan, decided to become a professional Santa to continue being able to connect with children.
“There’s a real sense of urgency,” he said. “This privilege of portraying Santa is more important this year than it has been in a long time for a lot of us, just because of the unrest within our country, and the challenges economically and socially.’’
But many of those who say they would like to book Howe this season are hesitating as they try to determine the best way to proceed in the midst of the health crisis.
Howe, 60, says he could make between $6,000 to $8,000 in a typical year.
“It’s very meaningful to me because, even though I’m retired as a public school teacher, I’m not drawing Social Security yet,” he says. “The income is very needed.’’
One of Howe’s fellow Santas who typically greets children at a mall during the holiday season has seen his proposed pay cut in half. If there are cases of COVID-19, Howe says his friend may not earn even that.
“He could work one day of that contract and then have to go home because of the virus,’’ Howe says.
Howe says he has his own concerns about the coronavirus’s possible spread. “I want to do personal visits,” he says, “but I also want to make sure that I’m safe.”
Virtual Visits? Trading the mall for Zoom
As a board member of the Michigan Association of Professional Santas, Howe has been meeting with the men he calls his “brothers in red’’ every Friday for the last three months, brainstorming via Zoom on how to keep the Christmas spirit alive amid COVID-19.
One Santa has created a mock mail room, Howe says, so kids can whisper their wishes through the post office window but still maintain a safe distance.
“We’ve talked about instead of wearing the typical white cotton gloves, we’d wear white leather gloves so we could sanitize our hands in between each visit,” Howe says. “Guidelines keep changing so we keep coming up with more creative ideas.’’
Talk has also focused on virtual visits, enabling kids to talk to Santa through a computer screen.
Video platform VisitWithSanta.com is “definitely seeing an uptick in interest … attributable in part to the unfortunate circumstances of the pandemic,” says Carla McAnulty, spokeswoman for the platform’s parent company, WelcomeSanta.com.
HireSanta has also seen a surge of interest in virtual visits. “We’ve done them in the past, but we’re really gearing up this year, and orders for them have been tremendous already,” says Allen, adding that many Santas have told him they don’t want to appear in person because age and underlying health issues make them more vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus.
Jim Beidle, 61, says the one in-person appearance he’d booked at a house party has already canceled. For him, virtual is the way to go.
“I am choosing not to do in-person visits unless there are some very strict protocols in place and this is primarily out of concern that I don’t want to become a vector,” says Beidle who lives in Arlington, Washington. “I’ll be doing Santa entirely virtually at this point… It is definitely going to be a lighter season this year for me.”
Though he’s earned as much as $5,000 in a season playing Santa, Beidle says fewer gigs will not be a significant financial hardship. In addition to being an ordained minister, he’s also a professional storyteller and an information technology consultant. “It’s going to be a ding on my wallet this year, and it won’t be quite as much fun,” he says, “but … it’s not going to break me.”
D. Sinclair, 56, who is also known as the “Real Black Santa,” says he was able to earn more than $40,000 last year, and he believes that he may equal that this holiday season as his business pivots to virtual visits.
But “even though you can make a lot of money, the guys that …continue to do it, do it because they love what they do,’’ said Sinclair, who has been performing as Santa in and around Atlanta for nearly 20 years and has entertained the children of kids who once sat on his lap. “I like going to someone’s home … and watching the kids’ eyes light up. That’s what Santa Claus is about. It’s not about income.’’
Seeing Santa Safely
Despite the likely increase in virtual visits, Santa’s superstar status makes him a big draw for retailers who after being largely shut down in the spring, may need him more than ever to bring in foot traffic this holiday season.
HireSanta is working with a manufacturer to create plexiglass shields that allow kids to see Santa in person but without contact. “We think we’ll be putting this in a number of our large retailers that we deal with because they really rely on Santa … to draw people into their establishment,” says Allen who is also working with the DeVargas Center in Santa Fe.
Some clients are also doing outdoor events. “They’ll still have Santa, but he’ll be sitting on a sleigh and kids will be 6 feet away,” Allen says.
Tweaking the in-person experience is preferable to doing a visit with Santa remotely, some say.
“I’ve thought about doing a virtual visit, but that doesn’t seem personal enough,” says Jerry Bianco, an accountant in Phoenix who volunteers to play Santa two or three times during the Christmas season. “I think it would be hard to explain to a young child, ‘Why can’t I sit in Santa’s lap?’ because that’s just what you do.”
Bianco’s church has already canceled his appearance as Santa this year, but he’s hoping that he can still reprise his annual gig for an organization that works with children in foster care. He says that he could lead a group in singing Christmas carols if there’s a need for social distancing, or that his wife could sew a giant mask that he can sport over his beard.
“I’m terribly concerned for my safety, and for the kids,” he says. “But I really feel like I can take enough precautions for myself to feel comfortable with it.”
In the pandemic, an opportunity
Howe says he has been adapting to the new reality.
In response to requests from parents who contact him on his Facebook page, he’s created more than a hundred videos in the past few months that encourage kids as they cope with a weird and distressing new world.
“I get to be a part of their life like a surrogate grandfather,’’ he says.
He’s told children to keep washing their hands to ward off the virus and recently called a little boy to offer reassurance as he started kindergarten. Technology has allowed him “to be a part of their life for more than just Christmas.”
It’s also allowed Howe to deliver the most important message of all. “Everything is going to be OK,” he tells them. ” ‘Eventually, we’ll get back to normal. And I can’t wait to see you.’ ’’
Follow Charisse Jones on Twitter @charissejones
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