Mall Santa Claus returns after the pandemic to high inflation, social distancing



Don’t look for plastic barriers or distant benches when you visit Santa this year. The jolly old elf is back in pre-pandemic style and has some pressing issues on his mind.

HireSanta.com saw a 30 percent increase in demand this Christmas season compared to last year after losing about 15 percent of its contractors to retirement or death during the pandemic, founder and chief elf Mitch Allen said.

It has a Santa database of several thousand with gigs at Bloomingdale’s flagship store in New York, various Marriott properties and other locations across the US. Most of Allen’s clients have gone back to being lap babies and don’t consider COVID-19 as a primary, he said, but Santa may choose to disguise himself.

Another major Santa agency, Cherry Hill Programs, has returned to pre-pandemic bookings for its roughly 1,400 Santas working at more than 600 malls and other locations this year, spokesman Chris Landtrup said.

“I can’t even begin to explain how excited we are to see everyone’s smiles in all places this season, with nothing covering those beautiful faces,” she said.

Cherry Hill Santas are also free to wear masks, Landtroop said.

Among the standout Santas still keeping their distance? There will be no lap visits at Macy’s flagship store in New York’s Herald Square. Santa is sitting behind his desk.

Some Santas who stayed home for the past two years due to health concerns have returned to the ho-ho-ho game, but Alan is desperate to replenish his reserves with new performers.

Inflation also bit Santa Claus. Many of them are older, on fixed incomes and travel long distances to don the red suit. They spend hundreds on their suits and other accessories.

“We charge customers a little more and we also pay our Santas a little more,” Allen said.

Reservations for many Santas were made months in advance, and some operate year-round. Allen’s Santa will earn $5,000 to $12,000 for the season.

Several Santas told The Associated Press they weren’t concerned about the cost, however. They are not in the Santa profession to make money, they do it for pure joy.

Allen and other agencies are juggling more requests for inclusive Santas, such as black, deaf and Hispanic performers. Alan also has a female Santa on speed dial.

“I haven’t been arrested by the kids yet and, with one exception, by the parents,” said Melissa Rickard, 48, who stepped into the role in her early 20s when Santa was hired by her father’s cabin got sick.

“Having a child who can’t tell I’m a woman in a way is the biggest compliment because it means I’m doing Santa justice.” It shakes my husband up,” added Rickard, who lives outside Little Rock, Arkansas. “I know there are more of us.”

By mid-November, Rickard had more than 100 gigs lined up 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 makes roughly $175 an hour as Santa, depending on the job, and donates all but his money to charity. And her beard? Jacob’s hair.

Eric Elliott’s carefully groomed white beard is the real deal. He and his Mrs. Claus, wife Moesha Elliott, turned professional this year after first taking on the role as volunteers in 2007. Both are retired military.

They spent weeks formally training Klaus. Among the skills they learned was American Sign Language and other ways to accommodate people with disabilities. Their work includes traveling to disaster areas with the Texas-based nonprofit Lone Star Santas to spread some cheer.

The Elliotts, who are black, say breaking into Santa’s top tier as first-time pros and color clauses hasn’t been easy. To some people, Eric said, “We understand that we’re not Santa Claus for you.”

The Santa Experience at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, is staffed by six Saint Nickies, including two blacks and the first Asian Santa. Spanish and Cantonese tours are provided.

Working smaller jobs, including home visits, the Elliotts have seen how rising prices have hit some people hard. They have lowered their rates at times when they sensed people were struggling.

“People have trouble just eating, but they don’t want to miss out on the experience,” Eric said. Sometimes he said, “You’ll meet them and you’ll say, ‘Hold on to it. I know you worked hard for this.

For other clients, Elliott charges between $150 and $300 an hour.

Charles Graves, a rare, professional deaf Santa in 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 hearing Santas as a child.

“As a kid I was really excited to get a present, but then it just goes away and it’s like there’s no connection. Kids look at me now and they’re like, wow, you know, there’s a connection to deaf culture. And I can always relate to the hearing kids, too,” said Graves, 52, a lively Santa.

Graves, who has a day job at a school for deaf children, also received Santa training. Works like Santa Claus with translators. Penetration is difficult and expensive, he says, but “it’s something that’s really, really 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, an accessible nonprofit theme park in San Antonio. He also does some Zoom visits.

Among Santa’s growing expenses this year is his nonsense. 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 more than 2,000-member International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas.

“Most of the contractors I know are raising their rates, mostly because of the cost of transportation, lodging and materials,” he said. “Personally, I’m raising my prices a bit for new customers, but I’m holding the prices this year for my repeat gigs.”

Arnold, who is in Memphis, Tennessee, charges $250 to $350 an hour. Others in his organization, depending on location and experience, charge from $100 to $500 an hour, the latter being in major cities like Los Angeles. Some, he said, don’t know their worth and throw it at $50 or $75 an hour.

As for the pandemic, Arnold hasn’t heard a word about it from his clients compared to last year and 2020 when he was working in a snow globe. The Santas he knows seem unfazed.

“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 fat men.



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