Traditions: The Polar Distress

The Santa-scape has changed. Here’s why one of the most famous holiday icons might not be coming to town after all.
Illustration by Chloe Zola

THE TRADE, as it were, of Santa Clausing goes back to 1890, when the first live Father Christmas appeared in a Boston department store. Fast forward to a decade ago when stores were getting away with conscripting random sullen employees to don fake beards and suits stuffed with pillows. But those days are gone. Shoppers, parents, and even kids, more precocious than ever, now demand an authentic Santa experience with someone who truly looks and acts the part. But getting a Santa who really sleighs can cost businesses a small fortune, if they can find one at all.

Mitch Allen, founder of the national Santa booking agency HireSanta, feels the bite of a Santa shortage. The workers he does have command $40 to $200 an hour, depending on the length, date, time, and location of the job. His company fields several dozen Santas in Central Indiana. On a contract lasting from mid-November to December 24, a right jolly old elf here earns $5,000 to $12,000.

But how did it come to be that a Santa commands higher comparative wages than a college professor? It all began, like so much else, with Covid. When public gatherings, the bread and butter of North Pole denizens, shut down, some of the then-idle Kris Kringles found other part-time work that turned out to be more agreeable.

But a bigger issue resonates. “I’m in my 50s, but a lot of Santas are retired guys,” says local pro Santa Gary Staver. “So they’re concerned about their health. We had a couple in the Indianapolis area who passed away from Covid.” Those deaths led many to hang up their costumes. Typical St. Nick entertainers are in their 60s or 70s and overweight, which puts them at high risk for complications from Covid and even the flu.

Yet being younger than 60 does not alone make being Santa more agreeable. A short list of the requisite skills includes: diplomacy (for wrangling crowds), stamina (for long hours), superhuman patience, and a high pain tolerance—Staver can’t count the number of times he’s gone home bloodied from (usually accidental) kicks to the shins. Oh, and Misters Claus doing TV appearances or Zoom visits must look relatively good on camera and be able to recite scripts.

As the ranks of the willing and suitable dwindle, demand has only gone up. After all, Santa is a comforting symbol of childhood innocence, an escape from the barrage of bad news.

For his part, Staver has gone all out on his Claus persona, growing a long beard (and a 100-percent real belly like a bowl full of jelly). He sports several top-quality costumes, including a stylish summer ensemble for the occasional Christmas in July stint, and commands a carefully honed kid- and parent-friendly stream of banter. To get in character, Staver bleaches his naturally darkish hair and beard snow white and keeps both looking lustrous. (Serious Santas are not above borrowing styling products from teenage granddaughters.)

Staver spent last year’s holiday season jetting around the country as part of a short-notice service: the Santa Swat Team. “I had to be available on 24-hour notice. They covered airfare, hotel, rental car, everything,” he says.

For those as committed as Staver, it can be an exciting gig, but the merriment is by nature fleeting. Staver gets post-Christmas letdown and finds himself mindlessly waving and smiling at perplexed families well into January. “You’re the most famous, sought-after person in the world for six weeks. Then one day you wake up and you’re just a fat guy with a half-white beard who’s walking around in the cold waving at people,” he laments. Today’s Santas may be well paid, but it’s still not easy being red.