Thanks to vaccinations against COVID-19 and the easing of some public health restrictions, Canadians are going to be seeing a lot more of Santa in 2021 than they did last year.
But there’s a catch.
Your chances of landing a pre-Christmas visit with Santa at the mall or having him drop in at a work party or event may depend on where you live.
In some parts of the country, there aren’t enough Santas to go around for live visits, in part because some jolly old elves don’t feel safe visiting in person yet. In other areas, Santas are sitting idle with few jobs because of high COVID-19 case counts.
Last year, Santa received national clearance as an essential worker to take flight on Dec. 24, but at ground level, the pandemic is still a problem for his working representatives and the companies who place them.
“It’s going crazy,” said Jeff Gilroy, manager of Just Be Claus, a talent agency for Christmas characters based in Bradford, Ont. “I’ve turned away probably about 200 events.”
Santas back in business at big malls
Mall visits with Santa are back on in Ontario, British Columbia and other provinces after widespread cancellations last year.
Both Cadillac Fairview and Oxford Properties have brought Santas back to shopping centres with COVID-19 safety precautions in place and pre-booked appointments instead of lineups.
Mina Caringi, the property manager of Oxford’s Scarborough Town Centre in the east end of Toronto, says customers started asking about a Santa return in October.
“They haven’t had their Santa photos in quite some time, so they’ve really been looking forward to welcoming him back.”
With pre-booked slots, there’s a limited supply of visits, so unless parents plan ahead, there will be kids who only see Santa from a distance.
COVID fears, paperwork problems add to shortage
Gilroy and Just Be Claus are supplying Santa’s to three Oxford malls, and he has about 25 Santas on his roster.
His St. Nicks are fully booked, but he’s getting up to 30 calls a day for them, so he’s pitching customers on other Christmas characters, including the Grinch.
“Maybe you do the Grinch and have a bit of a naughty Christmas,” said Gilroy, who claims his expensive Grinch costume competes with the best Santas for attention.
In Vancouver, Rozmin Watson of Hire a Santa says she’s “never had so many bookings in the period of 10 or 12 days” as she did this earlier this month.
Even though she has up to 120 Santas on her roster across Canada, depending on the year, she’s struggling to manage a surge of requests coming in from Ontario and B.C. as restrictions on social gatherings have loosened.
“There’s definitely a shortage.”
Watson says while a number of her Santas are sitting out because of their age and fears about contracting COVID-19, others don’t have up-to-date criminal record checks.
Virtual visits still favoured by some Santas
Some Santas who are limiting live visits or avoiding them altogether are still seeing kids because they learned how to do virtual visits last year.
One such tech-savvy Kris Kringle is Santa Paul from Janetville, Ont.
The popular Santa in his 70s normally has a slate full of special event appearances and home visits, but for 2021 he’s still doing only virtual visits.
“I’m double vaccinated, and I’m about to get my booster shot as well. But the vital link for us is having the children vaccinated.”
The virtual model allows working Santas to go international, taking visits with kids from around the world.
Santa Gee from Sarnia, Ont., has sessions booked with kids from Ireland, Russia and Japan.
“I’m playing with time zones around the world,” said Santa Gee, who charges $45 US for virtual sessions of eight to 10 minutes.
He rented a small studio space for his video shoots and is also taking on live appearances to help pay for it.
Sad Santas are wanting for work in Alberta
In Alberta, instead of a shortage of Santas, there’s a shortage of work — to the point where one Calgary Santa went south for some sun.
Santa Jeff is at his vacation workshop in Lake Havasu, Ariz.
He would normally have 30 bookings at this time of year, about six weeks of work. But this year he’s got a total of just 10 appearances in his calendar, up from none last year.
Santa Jeff says other Alberta Santas he knows are facing the same troubles because of the province’s COVID-19 case count.
“Everybody’s just still leery of it,” he said. “The malls have cut back big time, the corporate functions are pretty well non-existent.”
Though he’s going back to Calgary for his appearances, Santa Jeff is feeling a bit lost in the desert without the joy that comes from seeing excited kids.
“There’s something missing, it’s like, what’s going on? What am I sitting here, it’s Santa’s time,” said the retired oil worker who’ll soon turn 70.
“It really tears at the heart. I miss it a lot.”
Will the Kris Kringle crisis continue?
In Nova Scotia, COVID-19 continues to mess with the market for Santas as well.
Eighty per cent of Nova Scotians are fully vaccinated, and social gatherings of up to 25 people indoors and up to 50 outdoors are allowed without masks or social distancing.
Even so, “at the beginning of the season, bookings were kind of slow,” says one of the province’s best-known St. Nicks, Santa Floyd.
While Santa Floyd is back in his regular chair for visits at a Halifax sporting goods store, his corporate party bookings are down 90 per cent for the second year in a row.
Once again, he’s filling the gap with bookings for small family gatherings and visits.
In the past 10 days, he booked visits for every day he’s not at his store gig and says he wishes there were more Kris Kringles to help.
“I know people are struggling. They call me up. They say, ‘Can you do this event or come to my home?’ And I have to tell them, ‘No, I’m already booked.'”
A 40-year veteran of the red suit, 65-year-old Santa Floyd is worried about the long-term Santa supply in his province.
“I do believe there’s going to be a Santa shortage,” he said. “I haven’t seen any new recruits as of yet.”