On a recent Saturday at a PetSmart in Westwood, Nate Schaffer climbed into a cheap Santa suit, took his place between the cash registers and the dog treats, and did his best to conjure up Kris Kringle.
By his own admission, the 24-year-old associate manager left plenty to be desired. His brown hair poked from beneath his hat. His fake beard hung loosely from his cheeks. And at 168 pounds, he appeared more than a few bowls full of jelly short of the real deal.
Asked how he’d ended up with the role of the store’s in-house Santa, given his notable lack of St. Nickian qualities, Schaffer replied: “No one else wanted to do it.”
Indeed, this year — apparently more so than ever — a good Santa is hard to come by.
Throughout New England and beyond, demand for professional Santas has skyrocketed. One popular gig website, where many Santa transactions occur, registered some 430 local Santa inquiries this year — up from 255 in 2015. And with schedules that have been filled, in some cases, since Halloween, many Santas have been forced to turn away would-be customers.
“Right now, I probably have 25 requests that I can’t even respond to because I just don’t have any Santas that can go do it,” says Dan Greenleaf of Manchester, N.H., who in addition to playing Santa himself arranges gigs for a stable of 50 or so New England-based St. Nicks. “They’re all booked solid.”
Once employed mostly by shopping malls, Santa Clauses locally say they’re now being hired by an increasingly expansive list of venues — casinos and car dealerships, day-care centers and private residences. Some companies have booked Santa to hand out holiday bonus checks, and bars are bringing them in to mingle with beer-swilling millennials.
Nationally, it’s been much of the same.
“I was asked to do a strip club this year,” says Stephen Arnold, a Memphis-based Santa who serves as president of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, which is a thing that exists. “I had never heard of that before.”
Why, exactly, more people are seeking out Santa is a bit of a mystery. Some say the long lines and cost of getting a photo of your kid on Santa’s knee at the mall is driving part of it. Others speculate that a troubled world has left folks in added need of a dose of nostalgia.
“It kind of throws back to a kinder, simpler time,” says Edward Pyne, 71, a Rockport-based Santa.
On one hand, the soaring demand has been a boon for the Santa business. During peak season, today’s top-shelf professional Santas can work as many as nine gigs a day and fetch as much as $1,000 for a single appearance, while mall Santas can often secure plane tickets and extended hotel stays if they’re traveling from out of town.
But the resulting Santa shortage might also be having another effect: pressing less-than-stellar Santas into service and leading — in the minds of some veteran St. Nicks, at least — to some questionable portrayals of the Jolly Old Elf.
“Listen, there’s a lot of really great Santas out there,” says Ed Donlan of Boston Jolly Santa, a 15-year Claus whose dedication to the job is such that he begins preparing his beard in June for the holiday season. “But some of them are real schmucks.”
Among the complaints levied by veteran Santas like Donlan: skinny Santas, cheap-suited Santas, Santas with crumbs on their coats or nicotine in their beards.
“If they even have beards,” grumbles Gerard Leary, another veteran New England-based Santa.
Take a trip to one local mall, Donlan says, and have a look at the on-site Santa. “And then come and see me on Saturday at Faneuil Hall, and you’ll see the difference.”
Worse than the shoddy appearances, some Santas have shown that they lack the temperament for the role.
Last week, in a scene straight out of “Bad Santa,” a British Santa created an international stir when he allegedly responded to a fire alarm at a busy grotto by ripping off his beard and yelling at children to “Get the [expletive] out!” And a Santa at a Florida mall was forced to undergo training two years ago after reportedly telling a 10-year-old that Hillary Clinton was on the Naughty List.
Such behavior might fly for, say, the Easter Bunny; an Easter Bunny last year reportedly engaged in a shoving match with a parent at the Watertown Mall. But for those charged with upholding the sanctity of The Suit, it represents a serious breach of trust.
As Donlan puts it: “That guy who yelled at those kids in England? He should be in prison.”
The good news is that help might be on the way.
Already, some aging baby boomers are learning they can slip rather seamlessly into the role. And in recent years, a growing number of resources have become available for Santas-in-training, from Santa schools to Santa conventions to online Santa instructional courses offering tips on everything from beard whitening to cultivating an authentic ho-ho-ho.
Of course, at the end of the day, the training can only do so much.
“You can’t be taught to be Santa,” explains Donlan. “You’re either Santa or you’re not.”