At a workshop in Berlin, Santa arrives to train a handful of apprentices how to act like him. "From out of the forest I appear, to proclaim that Christmastime is here!" he exclaims.
Santa — real name Tim Zander — wears a long, red robe and matching hat, and he pulls on his beard slowly as he recites a traditional poem. He then segues into pointers on how to channel one's inner Santa.
"A really epic arrival is good, just like I just performed," he tells a roomful of recruits, "complete with the bells, the ho-ho-ho, and a heavy knock on the door. But not so hard that you break it." The applicants, one wearing a full Santa suit, sit around a conference table, taking notes.
Throughout Europe and North America, throngs of Santa impersonators like Zander have been busy preparing children for Christmas. But in Germany, the number of people willing to play Santa Claus has dropped precipitously, after a student union that traditionally supplied candidates stopped doing so last year out of a lack of interest among students. It was a code-red Santa emergency.
Many Santa impersonators don't do it for money — they do it in the spirit of Christmas. In Germany, Santas are employed through agencies. During last year's crisis, Berlin's Santa agencies convened, and like members of OPEC, they set a pricing scheme so they could all benefit equally. They called it "Santa's Honor Code." But this hasn't helped the Santa shortage.
Local tradition dictates that Dec. 24 is a day when families arrange for Santa to make home visits. Until a few years ago, Petra Henkert, an e-learning business employee who has run a Berlin Santa agency on the side for the past 20 years, oversaw more than 500 Santas visiting 6,000 families. Now, 200 are trying to meet the needs of an estimated 8,000 families.
In the past, she says, the Santas under her watch didn't ask for much. "But now, supply and demand regulate the market, and that's a very dangerous development," she says. "One agency has chosen to keep prices at 45 euros per Santa visit, but I've had to go up to 66. Others are asking for up to 120 euros."
That's more than $130. But amid a booming Berlin economy, "Getting paid for working on Christmas Eve is no longer attractive," says Henkert of her typically young Santa force. "They'd rather go to their families, because they can make money elsewhere."
Frederik Tholey, 32, is the founder of Weihnachtsmann2Go (Santa2Go), the agency that employs Tim Zander. Tholey says his Santa numbers are down this year, too, even though the job requirements aren't complicated.
"Basically, the entrance barriers are not so high," he says of his applicants. "I mean, you need a proper costume. You need to be good with children."
In return for a modest service fee, his agency connects families with Santas who live in the same vicinity by using an algorithm that plans Santas' stops so they're never more than 20 minutes away from their next appointment. The website appears to be a cross between Uber and a Santa dating site.
Tholey shows his Santa trainees a PowerPoint presentation filled with advice. "Always be prepared for the tough questions from your clientele," he tells them. "'Where are the reindeer? Is your beard real?' And in the worst-case scenario, just avoid the question altogether and sing a song instead."
As other applicants observe, Tholey helps dress a 62-year-old would-be Santa named Berndt in a Santa outfit and asks him to do a test-run.
"Ho ho ho," Berndt mumbles as he enters the room from outside.
He then launches into "Knecht Ruprecht" by Theodor Storm, the traditional poem Santa recites in Germany, but stumbles over one of the lines. He pauses for a second and then suggests they forget the poem and move on to "O, Christmas Tree."
It's a smooth, confident transition — one the jolly one himself might make. By the end of training, Berndt's hired — one of a vanishing elite spreading Christmas cheer through Berlin.
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