Little rest and lots of hand sanitizer: NPR

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Santa Claus artist Randyl Wagner outside his home in Rochester Hills, Michigan.

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Santa Claus artist Randyl Wagner outside his home in Rochester Hills, Michigan.

Jeff Dean / NPR

It’s long before sunrise that Randyl Wagner wakes up to make his list and double-check it. Santa’s entertainer in the suburbs of Detroit, Wagner does not fill his bag with toys or prepare his sleigh. Instead, he’s spent a recent morning responding to requests for video greetings from Santa, followed by a book reading in the library. After lunch, he headed to the Bass Pro Shop for five hours of dating before heading home to record half a dozen more video messages for kids around the world.

Being Santa Claus in 2021 means little rest and a lot of hand sanitizer. But you won’t hear Wagner complain.

“It’s worth every moment, and I can sleep on December 26,” he said.

Now that vaccines are widely available, many people are ready to celebrate in person this holiday season. But there are fewer Santa Claus animators to spread the joy. Those who stay find that the demand for their services is greater than ever.


Santa Claus artist Randyl Wagner prepares to record a virtual message.

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Santa Claus artist Randyl Wagner prepares to record a virtual message.

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Santa Claus artist Randyl Wagner is getting ready to record a virtual message at his home.

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“Most of us work as hard as we can, from early in the morning until very late at night,” says Stephen Arnold, president and CEO of IBRBS professional group and Memphis-based Santa host.

Of course, Santa Claus never reveals how exhausted he can be.

“What they don’t realize is that Santa Claus who comes from 9 to 11 [p.m.] probably started that morning at 8am or 8:30 or 9am at daycare or having breakfast with Santa or whatever, ”Arnold said.

He points out that Christmas falls on a Saturday this year, leaving December with only three weekends available for holiday gatherings, and further compressing the holiday season.

“There’s only a limited number of people you can see in a single night and fit into your calendar,” says Arnold. His holiday weekends have been booked since February.

COVID-19 has cut the ranks of Santa Claus

Like Santa himself, those who represent him tend to be older and overweight, factors that can make them vulnerable to COVID-19.

“COVID has been devastating for everyone, but even more so in the Santa Claus community because, let’s be honest, most of us are obese. Most of us have some kind of obesity related illness. “says Arnold. “We were quite vulnerable and it is clear from the number of Santa Claus we have lost in our organization.”

Mitch Allen, CEO of HireSanta.com, a website that connects customers to Santa Claus artists, says he knows 335 Santa Claus performers who have died in the past year and he suspects the real number is still higher.

“2020 has been an even tougher year for the elderly in the face of COVID,” he said.

To be clear, Allen says not all of these deaths are due to COVID. But the number is higher than in a typical year.

The threat of COVID is real for Santa Claus entertainers working on the circuit this year. Arnold says he tries to be careful, worrying about how his job might affect his family.

“I have an immunocompromised woman who is practically confined to the house,” he says. “If I had brought something home, it probably would have killed her if it hadn’t killed me.”


Santa Claus artist Randyl Wagner examines a Santa Claus costume at his house.

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Santa Claus artist Randyl Wagner examines a Santa Claus costume at his house.

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Randyl Wagner dons his Santa outfit and one of his many pairs of white gloves.

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When going to events, Randyl Wagner wears a bag of white cotton gloves so that they can be changed regularly. He also has his costume dry cleaned regularly and maintains social distancing while performing his duties as Santa, which means he doesn’t have to sit on Santa’s lap this year.

“I have my hand sanitizer even though I wear gloves,” says Wagner. “And I always wear a mask.”

Others have chosen to retire, hanging up their red suits and giving up their Santa duties. Allen estimates that between deaths and retirements, there are 10 to 15% fewer artists working this year. That, combined with a 120% increase in demand, means finding a Santa Claus is a tough sledge.

“Today, we have already had nearly 250 people who contacted us to hire a Santa Claus animator,” he said one day in late November. “And we are unlikely to be able to recruit many, if any.”

But the modern Santa Claus community is tight-knit, with artists using Facebook groups and mailing lists to spread the word about events requiring Santa Claus.

“We’re trying to overcome any shortages you might have heard of,” says Arnold. “And whatever you may have heard, Santa will be there on Christmas.”


Decorations adorn the makeshift studio of Santa Claus artist Randyl Wagner in his home.

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Decorations adorn the makeshift studio of Santa Claus artist Randyl Wagner in his home.

Jeff Dean / NPR


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