Santa goes to schools

A Santa with pre-schoolers Wyatt Padden, two, and Claire Padden, five, at Cloverdale School in the United States.
A Santa with pre-schoolers Wyatt Padden, two, and Claire Padden, five, at Cloverdale School in the United States.PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST

As the demand for mall Santas drops, those dressing up as the character look to other places to make their appearances

NEW YORK • Ms Ali Schultz has not shopped at a mall in years - and not even Santa Claus is enough to lure her back.

This year, instead of lugging her two young children to the mall for photos with the ho-ho-ho character, she came up with an alternative: video calls with Old Saint Nick, right from her living room.

"To be honest, I feel kind of bad sometimes because we've never taken them to the mall to see Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny," said Ms Schultz.

As Americans do more of their buying online, malls are losing their significance and taking with them a decades-old holiday staple: the Mall Santa.

Dozens of shopping centres have closed in the past decade, creating new challenges for portly, bearded men of a certain age who look to malls for seasonal work.

"The role of Santa, especially in the last five years, has really evolved," said Ms Stephanie Cegielski, a spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centres.

Santas are finding ways to adapt, often trading in one steady mall gig for a series of hourly appearances.

Some are taking up residence at stores such as Bass Pro Shop and American Girl, or booking more private parties. Others are finding work at outdoor shopping centres.

Some, such as Mr Ed Taylor, a Los Angeles-based Santa in his 15th year, are increasingly going where the children are, by making video calls to their iPhones and iPads.

Mr Taylor, who also runs an online school for aspiring Santas, has outfitted his home office to look like Santa's workshop. He uses a webcam to talk with his young clients.

To make the casual conversations more believable, he often foregoes his red suit in favour of ruffled shirts and suspenders. He charges a flat fee for video calls, typically US$20 (S$27) to US$50, depending on the number of children and the proximity to Christmas.

In-person visits start at US$250 for half an hour. He has appeared at corporate events for Facebook and Pinterest, as well as parties hosted by television personality Jimmy Kimmel and the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team.

A number of apps, including Hello Santa and Message From Santa, have also emerged to connect youngsters to the North Pole.

Some offer live, two-way conversations while others, such as Video Santa, which Ms Schultz uses with her children, simply replay the same footage of Santa.

"Hello there," says a man with a fake beard. "This is Santa Claus speaking. Now tell me, what do you want for Christmas?"

These days, even when Santa shows up at the mall, he has to do it in style in a bid by businesses to ramp up the X factor. Santa arrived by helicopter in Panama City, Florida; by parachute in Thousand Oaks, California; and alongside a marching band in Minneapolis.

There have been other changes, too, as Americans shun indoor malls for open-air shopping centres.

Demand for Santas at outdoor venues is growing by roughly 10 per cent each year, as younger families gravitate to city-centre shopping areas.

The changes pose new challenges for Santa, who has to figure out how to stay comfortable outdoors.

"You worry sometimes that Santa will get too cold, but it's actually much tougher to manage temperatures in warm weather," Ms Denise Conroy, chief executive of the Iconic Group which recruits the jolly fellow, said.

"You don't want portable fans blowing on Santa if you've got a beautiful winter wonderland set," she added.

To stay in a jolly mood, some Santas buy military-grade ice vests.

Others wear sweat-absorbing beanies under their hats.

As Santas rely more on piecemeal work - a birthday party here, a tree-lighting ceremony there - many said managing their careers has become a full-time job.

Some hire agents to help them line up new gigs or rely on lawyers to read through their many contracts.

The Santa Claus Conservatory, which Mr Taylor runs from his home, has begun adding online courses focused on social media, story-telling and sign language.

"A lot of it is professional development type stuff for Santa," he said. "How do you market yourself? What can you do on Facebook and Instagram to get more bookings? How do you make a website?"

He has more than 1,900 students and said enrolment is growing rapidly.

"Demand is at an all-time high," he noted. "Santa's got to keep up with the times."

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2017, with the headline 'Santa goes to schools'. Print Edition | Subscribe