THE WORLD

Santa returns in the time of inflation

Santa - inflation - USA

Inflation has taken away even Santa's bread. Many of them are older, on fixed incomes and travel long distances to wear the red suit. They spend quite a lot of money on their suits and other clothing

Don't look for plastic barriers or benches in the distance when you visit Santa this year. He's back to pre-pandemic style, but his mind is on some serious issues.

Santa arrangement website HireSanta.com has seen a 30% increase in demand this Christmas season compared to last year after losing around 15% of its retired performers during the pandemic.

It has a database of several thousand Santas with concerts at Bloomingdalet's flagship store in New York, various Marriott properties and other venues across the US. Most of Allen's customers have gone back to being kids and not seeing COVID-19 as a big deal, he said, but Santa may choose to wear a mask.

Inflation has taken away Santa's bread

Another major Santa agency, Cherry Hill Programs, is back to pre-pandemic booking numbers for its roughly 1.400 Santas working at more than 600 malls and other locations this year, spokeswoman Chris Landtroop said.

"I can't even explain how excited we are to see everyone's smiles in all places this season without anything covering those beautiful faces," she said.

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

Among the famous Santa Clauses, are there those who continue to keep their distance? There will be no visits to Santa's lap at Macy's flagship store in New York's Herald Square. Santa is sitting behind his desk.

Several Santas who stayed home the past two years due to health concerns have returned to the ho ho ho game, but Allen is desperately trying to fill his place with new performers.

Inflation has taken away even Santa's bread. Many of them are older, on fixed incomes and travel long distances to wear the red suit. They spend quite a lot of money on their suits and other clothing.

"We're charging our customers a little more and we're also paying our Santas a little more," Allen said.

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dIVERSITY

Reservations for many Santas were made months in advance, and some worked year-round. Allen's Santas will earn between $5.000 and $12.000 for the season.

However, they told The Associated Press that they are not concerned about the cost. They are not in the profession of Santa to make money, but they do it for sheer joy.

Allen and other agencies are facing more requests for inclusive Santas, such as black, deaf and Spanish-speaking artists. Allen also has a nickname for phone calls.

"Having a child who can't understand that I'm a woman is somehow the biggest compliment because it means I'm doing Santa justice."

By mid-November, Rickard had more than 100 gigs lined up, through Hire Santa and other means.

"A lot of people talk to each other," she said. "Hey, have you seen the moon?"

Rickard pays roughly $175 an hour as Santa, depending on the job, and donates all of her money, except fuel, to charity. And her beard? Yak hair.

Eric Elliott's carefully maintained white beard is remarkable. He and his wife, Moeisha Elliott, turned professional this year after first taking on the roles as volunteers in 2007. Both are now retired.

They spent weeks in official Santa training. Among the skills they picked up was American Sign Language and other ways to accommodate people with disabilities. Their work has included traveling to disaster areas with the Texas-based nonprofit Lone Star Santas to spread some cheer.

The Elliotts, who are black, say entering Santa's top tier as first-time professionals and color clauses hasn't been easy. For some people, Eric said: "We understand that we are not Santa Claus for you".

People in financial difficulties

The Santa Experience at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, is being filled with six Saint Nicks, including two who are black and the first Asian Santa. Tours are offered in Spanish and Cantonese.

Doing smaller jobs, including home visits, the Elliotts have seen how the price hikes have hit some people hard. They have lowered their rates at times when they feel people are struggling.

"People also have problems with food, but they don't want to lose the experience," said Eric. Sometimes, he said, "You'll meet them and say, 'Go ahead and stay strong.' I know you worked hard on this'".

For other clients, the Elliotts charge anywhere from $150 to $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 wear the costume in part by awkward encounters with a hearing Santa as a child.

“As a kid, I was so excited to get a present, but then you just walk away and it seems like there's no connection there. Kids look at me now and wonder, you know, like there's a connection to deaf culture. And I can always relate to children who listen," said Graves, a 52-year-old Santa Claus.

Graves, who has a day job at a school for deaf children, also received training to be Santa Claus. He works as such with translators. Entry has been difficult and expensive, he says, but "this is something really, really important to me."

Translated by: Blerta Haxhiu