The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Santas are also in short supply this year, which leads to some intriguing alternatives

(Kiersten Essenpreis for The Washington Post)

A few weeks ago, Courtney Bryant’s boss approached her with a task. It was really important, he said, and would probably take some time. He was “making it seem like it was just going to be this really big thing,” she says. “He said, ‘I need you to find a Santa.’ I literally just cackled. I thought he was joking.”

Her boss is on the board of a Fort Worth nonprofit organization that is holding an event Dec. 4, a prime weekend for holiday parties. He wanted a performer who could play Santa for the kids in attendance. How hard could it be? She started reaching out to the many Santa talent agencies who handle such requests. And they all came back to her with the same answer: No-N0-No.

In total, she estimates she reached out to about 50 different Santas and companies, all of whom turned her down. Things got so dire, “I was thinking of asking my husband, because he has a big full beard and kind of like, longish hair.” Finally, through a website called GigSalad, one company answered her call. Bryant signed a contract for $320 for two hours of a fake-bearded Santa — “If we wanted one with a real beard, it would have been like, a hundred dollars more.” She has no idea what she’s going to get.

“I don’t even have a picture of the Santa. I don’t know what he looks like,” she says. “The woman I spoke to on the phone for the company said that the Santa will reach out 48 hours before the event.” This was not reassuring.

The best-case scenario is that the kids love him. The worst-case scenario, says Bryant, is the plot of “That movie ‘Bad Santa’ ” — you know, the one starring Billy Bob Thornton as a sex-addicted alcoholic mall Santa who moonlights as a professional thief.

How do we feel about the mall these days?

The nationwide worker shortage has stricken an array of industries, as varied as fast food, textile mills and long-haul trucking. The crisis, as news outlets have been chronicling with increasing worry, extends all the way up to the North Pole: While major shopping malls have mostly secured their Santas (they sign them to contracts months in advance), there are not enough Santas to meet the demand of this year’s back-to-normal holiday parties and festivals, performers say. Low pay is not the issue — the median rate for a Santa-for-hire is $30 an hour, with many experienced Santas commanding $150 an hour or more.

“Across the board I’ve seen an uptick in number of requests, but once I’m full, I’m full,” says Doug Eberhardt, a Santa based in Charlotte. “I’ve got 92 gigs booked between now and Christmas.”

HireSanta, an agency for Santas and Mrs. Clauses, has been turning down requests for weeks.

“Hundreds of people a day have been reaching out to us,” founder Mitch Allen says. “We always sell out on weekends, but normally it’s after Thanksgiving.” This year, his Santas were all fully committed for every weekend by the first week of November.

With his magical workshop and vast contingent of workers, Santa is usually a guy who understands supply and demand. But maybe that only applies to toys: There are more parties this year, and there are also fewer Santas available. The pandemic hit the Santa Claus community hard, for obvious reasons: Many of the men who play the role are at high risk in the covid-19 pandemic, because of their age. The Santa physique (see: "bowl full of jelly") tends to check off a not-so-nice list of potential co-morbidities, starting with a high BMI.

“Several hundred Santas and Mrs. Clauses, over the last 18 months, have passed away, and it’s just a tragedy,” says Allen, though he cautions that not all of those deaths may have been attributable to covid-19. Other Santas, wary of the risks of being around germy, potentially unvaccinated children, have decided to sit yet another pandemic holiday out, or retire.

Santa Tim Connaghan, who goes by the honorific “National Santa” for his role in major parades and as the Santa for Toys for Tots, surveys his brethren annually and reports that 18 percent of the surviving Santas are taking the year off. He is taking fewer bookings this year to spend more time with family.

“I’ve had all my shots and all my vaccinations, and I watch myself very closely,” says Connaghan. “But I want to remain cautious, you know, and I’m also encouraging other Santas to do the same.”

Mezzanine Beecomb is the founder of Circus Modern, a San Francisco talent brokerage for stilt walkers, contortionists and other party performers — including Santas. Every holiday season, she assembles a troupe of about five Santas who take bookings to visit private homes. But she lost a few of her regulars to moves and illness, and started looking for replacements after Halloween. She quickly realized that she was behind schedule. She posted some job ads online. It didn’t go well.

“The folks who responded were on the younger side, like really young to be Santa,” she says. One site, ZipRecruiter, offered up candidates who were female. Others were not willing to work on Christmas Eve. A few applicants were construction workers with no experience acting or working with children. From her initial applicants, she has hired only one man, who is probably a bit too young for the job — she’ll fix that with stage makeup — but previously worked at a school.

Instead of hunting around fruitlessly, it seems like the easiest thing would be to recruit your grandpa or uncle — or, really, any man with a beard and a twinkle in his eye, right? But that has its challenges, too. Santa is nothing without his red fur-trimmed suit, but good luck finding one of those this late in the game. Blame the broken supply chain.

How your holiday shopping cart explains the damaged global supply chain

“There’s a lot of needed items that are still on the sea in containers,” a spokeswoman for the company Costumes for Santa told The Post. “Our wholesalers have not gotten their product from China. . . . Stuff that should have come in in August is coming in now.”

Meanwhile, determined would-be Santas are buying suits and accessories in record numbers, perhaps so they can DIY a little magic. At Party City, “We’re already seeing a significant increase in Santa suits, hats and accessory purchases compared to last year,” as well as an increase over pre-pandemic Christmas 2019, says Julie Roehm, the company’s chief marketing and experience officer. Eberhardt, the Charlotte Santa, also owns Pro Santa Shop, and has sold out of most items.

“I sold four or five of my own personal [suits] at a premium just because people were just that desperate,” he says.

But a fancy suit might not be enough. An untested Santa, one who happens to look and sound suspiciously like Uncle Andy, could ruin a kid’s Christmas and shatter their sense of trust if he’s not skilled in the art of improvisation.

“A lot of them just think throwing on the beard and the Party City Santa suit, kids will believe them — and some kids will,” says Eberhardt. “But for the most part, that’s not very believable.”

Perhaps the shortage is an opportunity to rethink what makes a Santa "believable." For most of the past century, that has meant a St. Nick who is chubby, white-bearded, old, and usually Caucasian. Maybe a gap in the marketplace will open up opportunities for Santas who don't fit the mainstream mold: Black Santas. Deaf Santas. Spanish-speaking Santas. Connaghan is trying to develop a talent pipeline through an initiative called Santa Bootcamp, sponsored by Old Navy, which recruits Santas with diverse backgrounds. Because there are so few of these Santas — only 5 percent of Santas identify as non-White by industry estimates — they are even harder to find this year than usual, says HireSanta's Allen.

The shortage also means that Santa gigs are available to those who are less immunocompromised because of their age. Like Hunter Woodson, who has a full calendar of Santa gigs, despite being a clean-shaven, baby-faced 21-year-old. His costume, he says in his charming drawl, is so good that when people see him out of the suit and beard, “They go, ‘Ain’t no way, that can’t be him, he’s just a kid. . . . They just can’t believe it. They’re blown away.”

He plays it up by walking with his shoulders stooped, but he can also do stunts that other Santas wouldn’t be capable of. Woodson founded the Blue Ridge Christmas Cottage, an attraction in Lovingston, Va., and he drops down a chimney during appearances.

“It’s a tight squeeze, but it works,” he says.

Or, there are Santas who take the look in a different direction entirely. Rosario Smirne, 42, of Alexandria, was moved by the holiday spirit to get into the Santa game for the first time last week, with plans to donate his earnings to charities. He has short black hair, only a few flecks of silver in his dark beard, and looks younger than his age. So he’s branded himself as “Santa Maverick” — a sort of dashing, “Bridgerton”-meets-Macy’s Santa in a fur-trimmed cape and gold paisley vest with tie.

“Santa with swag,” he says. If kids ask why he doesn’t look like the Santa they’ve seen on TV, he has a ready answer: Basically, this is his casual Friday.

“As it gets closer to Christmas, my beard gets longer, it gets whiter and I gain a little weight and I get ready to go out on Christmas Eve,” he explains, as if he were talking to a skeptical child. “That’s when I transition to the red-and-white suit. This is my current state right now.”

Does it work? He’ll find out soon enough. But are people eager for his services anyway?

“I’ve had 27 offers in 12 hours,” he says.

Maybe a Santa alternative doesn’t try to be Santa at all. Maybe, like the plot of the 1974 stop-motion classic “The Year Without a Santa Claus,” Mrs. Claus will come to the rescue. Connaghan has deployed Santa’s wife in areas where no Santa can be found.

“She could come by and say, ‘Well, Santa is so busy and everything, so he asked me to come by and see you, and I’m going to find out from all of you what you want for Christmas and take it back to him,’ ” he says.

But, she, too, is in short supply. Justin Raprager has been searching for a Mrs. Claus for weeks to staff his Odessa, Fla., family farm’s winter festival. Of the 50 applications he has received, the vast majority have not responded to his follow-ups, and the few who did bailed on their interviews or came but couldn’t commit to filling enough shifts.

Despite ‘Great Resignation,’ millions of Americans still can’t find work.

It shouldn’t be this hard, Raprager laments. It’s a fun job, one that pays between $20 and $25 an hour, and the only duty is to sit on a chair and read books to kids. No experience necessary.

She “can’t be sex offender, or have a criminal offense. They have to be nice, and they have to be able to read, and they have to like children. You know, that’s the only requirements,” he says. There are free lunches, and holiday bonuses. And yet.

He has one promising candidate, an ESL teacher, but she can’t work the whole season. Another Mrs. Claus has offered to come down from Minnesota if he will pay her living expenses, which would put a strain on his budget, but “honestly, we have to consider it.” Luckily, he was able to retain his Santa from last year.

But despite Santa’s dismal showing this year, there is still jolly news. Even if he can’t make it to your local tree-lighting or socially distanced corporate shindig, “Santa Claus is definitely going to deliver presents and there’ll be presents underneath the Christmas tree this year,” says Allen.

After all, on Christmas Eve, you only need one.

Read more:

Leaving Facebook? Easier said than done.

Mariah Carey to Texas bar that banned ‘All I Want for Christmas’ until Dec. 1: ‘It’s time’

A family put up their Christmas lights in early November. They now face fines ‘Grinch’ HOA