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Why there is a shortage of Santa Claus in the United States and how the business has changed because of the pandemic

It’s seven at night and Santa claus He is searching in the pockets of his big red jacket for the keys to the house he rents in Miami to spend the Christmas season.

He looks slimmer than he’s seen in the movies, but he’s definitely Santa: his unmistakable white beard, huge leather boots and a large scarlet coat give him away.

A few seconds later, a minivan ocher color parks in front of the house and two more get out: as if it were the beginning of a holiday joke, now there are three Santa Claus trying to open the door of a house.

Their real names are Leon McBride, Lee Andrews y Rick Hyman. These three friends travel more than 10 hours by road each year to this city in the state of Florida from their homes in Georgia and Virginia to play the most iconic Christmas character in shopping malls and events.

And now they are doing it at a good time: With an exponential increase in the number of Americans vaccinated against COVID-19, shoppers are preferring to return to physical stores instead of looking for gifts online, which immediately translates into more Santas demand around the country.

But even though the health emergency has improved compared to 2020, not all Santas feel as comfortable as Rick, Leon and Lee from working during a pandemic.

And this, according to some insiders in the industry, is creating a shortage of Santas in the US.

The origin of the scarcity

In 2020, the pandemic had a particular effect on the Santa Claus community of interpreters: due to the typical characteristics of the character and how they are related to covid-19 (generally Saint Nicholas is an overweight man over 65 years old, two factors high risk) many have decided not to work this Christmas.

“In fact,” he explained to BBC Mundo Mitch Allen, founder of the (Hire Santa) company, “we lost more than 335 Santas in 2021 alone due to covid and other factors, and we lost even more last year.”

For Tim Connaghan, who has the honorary title of “National Saint” due to his work in parades and national campaigns and who develops the annual survey “Red Suit”, the health risks posed by the pandemic have made the availability of Santas much lower this year.

“We have many families who are very cautious [con el covid] and many wary Santas too […] In my survey, 18% of the Santas said they were not going to work this year, “Connaghan explained to BBC Mundo.

“But also 30% said they would work through video conferencing services, such as Zoom,” he added.

Virtual santa

Rick Hyman, one of three Santas who work in Miami during the Christmas season, doubts there is a shortage of Santas performers. For him, the issue is more of a change that is taking place in the business.

“I don’t think there is a shortage of Santas. I think most discovered the virtual world and have turned to those services because they like it better that way,” says Hyman.

Allen agrees that the demand for video calling services with the Santas increased, especially during 2020, although he says this year people are looking for a “more traditional” experience.

“The number of virtual visits on our platform has dropped dramatically. Last year it skyrocketed […] but this year it has dropped, because people are tired of FaceTime and Zoom, “says Allen.

And for more traditional Santas, like Hyman, home visitation and having direct contact with children is still vital: “We still want to meet children, we want them on our knees. […] because when a child looks you in the eye, he looks directly into your soul. “

A high-cost, but lucrative business

Santa Claus looks at a Christmas tree.  (JUAN CAMILO ROA @JUANCAMILOBERLIN).

Lee Andrews is the youngest of the three Santas to rent the house in Miami this end of the year. With just 30 years, Lee told BBC Mundo that although the Santas business can be “very lucrative”, it also requires a large investment.

“What we do is expensive to do,” Lee says as he shows off the leather boots from his costume. “Custom boots alone cost $ 1,000.”

Rick Hyman, 75, is another of the Santas who traveled to Miami. She started her career at a family party 20 years ago in a cheap costume that she bought at a department store for $ 50. Today he says that his investment has increased exponentially.

“If you are going to invest thousands of dollars in clothing and things like that, I can guarantee you that you are running a business,” Rick explains.

Lee adds, “We have friends who can make over $ 100,000 in a month and a half being Santa. It really depends on your mindset and how hard you want to work.”

“It depends on the mindset you look at it with: in terms of Santas, probably only 35% or 40% see it as a business,” says Lee.

A traditional Santa

Three people who play Santa Claus telling their stories.  (JUAN CAMILO ROA @JUANCAMILOBERLIN).

Leon McBride, 78, has been traveling to South Florida for 15 years this Christmas season to play Santa Claus. With 40 years in entertainment, including a long career as a clown in the Ringling Brothers circus, he is the most experienced of the three.

And he says that, despite the technology, there are elements of his work that can only be done in the traditional way, that is, talking to children directly.

“They want to approach you and tell you what happens to them […] And sometimes they ask us things that we cannot answer as if you say ‘what do you want for Christmas’ and they say ‘I want my dad to come back because he died’ “.

“One of the things that I have found that children like is that you listen to them. Sit down, have them look at your face and talk. And when they realize that you are really paying attention, that’s when they uncover “says McBride.

That is why he undertakes his journey to Miami every year. He says that people in South Florida are friendlier and this allows him to do his job better. Lee agrees on this point, visiting Miami for the first time to play Saint Nicholas.

“So do it [interpretar a Santa] as a business or as a charity, you have to do it to the best of your abilities because when there is a bad Santa, we all look bad, “says Lee.



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