It’s boom times for Santa

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There’s a narrow window when most American children believe in Santa. It’s around 3, 4, 5 years old. Six to 8 is starting to push it. Which is to say that, for many families, the pandemic nearly ruined the limited opportunity to get that photo with the child sitting on Santa’s lap in complete awe.

Christmas 2020 was a washout. Christmas 2021 was muted by the omicron wave. But this Christmas, seemingly everyone wants a piece of Santa: the vaccine-boosted who’ve shaken off pandemic precaution, the companies and stores hungry to lure workers and shoppers back in, the families whose 5-year-olds will soon start shrugging at all of this.

Those parents especially, “they want to get Santa,” said Stephen Arnold, a Memphis, Tennessee, Santa and the president of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas. And they’re willing to go to great lengths to get Santa. “That desperation,” he said, “leads to what we’re perceiving as increased demand.”

Santa bookings are way up across the big platforms that help companies hire them and families find them. Santa’s wages are up. And not just up, but as best as we can tell they’re up more than the pay bumps most workers have seen, and, yes, more than inflation.

On GigSalad, an online marketplace for event workers that annually books thousands of Santa gigs, Santa’s average pay for an event this year — home visits, corporate parties, photo studio assignments — is about $275, up around 12% from last Christmas. That’s an imperfect proxy for the whole Santa industry. But we take what we can when the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t track Santa as an occupation. (The wage growth is also in line with what we’ve heard from other Santa sources.)

For every new Santa looking to sign up this year with HireSanta, another major booking platform, 20 new clients are hoping to hire one, said Mitch Allen, the company’s founder and head elf. The demand is more than double pre-pandemic levels.

“People are trying to call up on Monday and think they can get a Santa to come to their house on Friday, Saturday, Sunday,” said Howie Graham, Santa at a Bloomingdale’s in New York City. Unfortunately, that is not how Santa works. Santa’s December weekends were booked months ago.

Nick Gillotte, a Santa in Danbury, Connecticut, used to start booking photo studios for family Santa shoots around the beginning of September. This year, those slots began to fill up in May. And his prices are up “significantly.”

The reason? According to Santa, it’s Econ 101: “The pent-up demand has increased people who want me,” Gillotte said. “And I only have a limited amount of time.”

Santa has been dealing with inflation, too. He has to buy gas, liability insurance, maybe a new belt this year. And salon services to whiten a naturally brown beard aren’t cheap.

That Santa is in hot demand this year makes sense. Certain kinds of jobs were devastated early in the pandemic: service-sector roles that didn’t work well in virtual or remote settings and that depended on in-person contact. Think restaurant servers, bartenders, salon workers.

As pandemic restrictions eased and consumers shifted from buying goods to more services, these same jobs prompted widespread for-hire signs and higher pay. The trend has meant that relatively lower-paying service-sector jobs in leisure and hospitality have been among the few whose wages have outpaced inflation this year.

Santa has the quintessential version of this kind of job — one that lost much of its value amid social distancing but now commands an in-person premium. What Santa sells is as in-person as it gets: You climb onto his lap, you tug on his beard, and you lean in close enough to whisper that you’re really hoping for a toy drone that opens up to release lots of tiny drones (or, rather, that’s what your 5-year-old does).

This did not translate well to social distancing, on top of the median Santa’s particular COVID risk. Arnold, of the Real Bearded Santas, estimates that more than half of the group’s 2,000-plus members did no Santa work in 2020. (Many Santas are otherwise retired and on Social Security.) It was also hard for Santa to do his job using traditional personal protective equipment, like masks. For one Christmas tree lighting event in 2020, Arnold greeted families from inside a giant snow globe.

Other Santas worked behind Plexiglas, or “one reindeer apart, as we like to say in the Santa world,” said Tim Connaghan, who runs a Santa school and serves as the national Santa face of Toys for Tots. (A reindeer, if you did not know, is roughly 6 feet long.)

Some Santas tried going virtual. But the technological leap could be a big one for some among a population largely over 65. Gillotte, a relatively young Santa at 58, led training sessions for Santas on how to conduct virtual visits.

“Because so many guys were having trouble with green screen stuff,” he said, “we started to transition them to ‘just decorate a wall.’”

This strange time has in some ways led to a lasting expansion in Santa’s business, another reason things are booming today. Some Santas who figured out the virtual visit still offer it. A few of Santa’s tricks actually work better that way: It’s easier to perform magic virtually, or to glance at notes with all the children’s names and wish lists.

That means some families who could never reach Santa now can. And other families who previously thought Santa worked only at the mall discovered during the pandemic that he did home visits, too. That kind of Santa work is in big demand.

Of course, it’s hard to say if there will be such good times for Santa next year. The economy might sour, or the pent-up demand may recede. But there have been dark days before, even plagues and pandemics, said Connaghan, who last week was in the middle of a run of Santa appearances with Mariah Carey.

“The tradition of St. Nicholas has been around now, what, 17 centuries?”

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