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Santa Clauses are coming to town — and they've been brushing up on their skills

Enrollment is up this year at Santa Claus school after a season of virtual visits left families and Santa entertainers longing for a return to the old-fashioned experience.

Santa Claus has supply chain issues. While demand is surging for in-person visits, fewer Santa Claus entertainers are available.

Mitch Allen, the founder of HireSanta.com, a booking website, estimated that there are 15 percent fewer Santa Claus entertainers this year. The factors include deaths due to Covid-related illnesses, Santas who are taking a break because of pandemic concerns and those who are aging out or retiring.

Last year, going to see Santa felt risky for many families. This year, it seems, parents and kids can’t wait for him to return.

The number of clients opting for virtual Santa visits by scheduled video calls spiked last year. That has changed this year, and it could be weighing on the number of Santas available.

The average Santa entertainer makes about $50,000 a year, according to data from the hiring company ZipRecruiter. Mall Santas can make $12 to $75 per hour. Video call visits run about $40 an hour. Home visits can be $150 to $225 an hour.

A Santa Claus practices riding a sleigh for a parade at the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School.Ezra Kaplan / NBC News

“Most people want an in-person visit this year, as opposed to the virtual visits last year,” Allen said. “Instead of physical barriers this year, most retail clients are using social distancing.”

Every year we lose a few, since being older and obese isn’t exactly a healthy lifestyle.

Jim Beidle, 62, a Santa portrayal artist in the Seattle area, said he knows of about a half-dozen Santa and Mrs. Claus performers who died from Covid-related complications. “This is the saddest thing. Every year we lose a few, since being older and obese isn’t exactly a healthy lifestyle,” Beidle said.

Other Santas said they were also hearing a clamor for a return to the old-fashioned Santa experience, with no acrylic barriers and no ban on touching Santa’s outstretched hand while he’s inside an inflatable plastic snow globe.

“The demand for an unmasked Santa is up significantly, and I’m still following the rule of ‘whichever of us has the more restrictive policy, we go with that policy.’ My own no-touch policy is there to protect future clients, but I sorely miss getting to hold babies,” said David Lewis, 70, a Santa portrayal artist from Dallas. 

Santas earn their stripes at the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Michigan.Ezra Kaplan / NBC News

“As a baby boomer, I never expected anything that I could do would wind up in short supply, so this is nice,” he said. “But children are still children, they still come in packages of one, and Santa’s still glad to see them.”

Enrollment is also up this year at the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, Michigan, founded in 1937. For generations, Santas have enrolled annually to brush up on their “Ho ho hos.”

“There is more of a demand,” said Tom Valent, the school’s dean. “People want Santa. They want to go back to normal. They want what Santa stands for. They want that back in their family.”

People want Santa. They want to go back to normal. They want what Santa stands for.

More than 200 students gathered this year to learn the ins and outs of making memories for kids this holiday season. Students pay $580 for individuals or $1,100 for Mr. and Mrs. Claus couples to attend a three-day experience at the “Harvard of Santa Schools.”

The training includes a trip to a fully functioning single-gauge train and hands-on training in a wooden toy workshop.

“It’s about letting them understand what it’s like at the North Pole, what it’s like in this packed little factory with hammers going," Valent said.

The experience is a game changer for professional Santas. They include it on their résumés as a premier accreditation so they can stand out from other Santas vying for coveted mall gigs and private parties. 

“I am a graduate of Santa school,” said Kenneth Debelius, aka Real Santa Ken, a Santa entertainer who has performed at Walt Disney World. “I use the credential on my website whenever I do a performer’s résumé. I lead with that.”

The lessons include a how-to for navigating social media, a key method for the modern Santa portrayal artist to drum up business and build brand recognition. There’s a lot to juggle. But along with the joy and cheer, these Santas brainstorm and share ideas about how to deal with the more difficult stuff children can ask about — like serious illness or parents who are separating.

You'd better watch out: These Santa Clauses are coming to town.Ezra Kaplan / NBC News

“So there’s a lot of those elements that you have to be prepared for,” Debelius said. He said he will keep a small book with him and write down the names of children who have special requests or questions and that he will offer to say a prayer or have a good wish for them when he goes to sleep at night.

Santas who are still in the game this year say the pandemic pressures make their role feel all the more significant.

“Connecting with people and creating great memories becomes even more critical as the pandemic cycle continues. With all sorts of bad news vying for our attention, it’s essential to focus on joy as we wind our way into winter,” Beidle said.

“As Santa, it’s great to be that messenger who tells you: ‘You did great this year. Have fun this season. Live your joy!’” he said.