It's well before sunrise when Randyl Wagner wakes to make his list and check it twice. A Santa entertainer in the Detroit suburbs, Wagner is not filling his sack full of toys or preparing his sleigh. Instead, he spent a recent morning fulfilling requests for video greetings from Santa followed by a book reading at the library. After lunch, he headed off to Bass Pro Shop for five hours of meet-and-greets before returning home to record a half-dozen more video messages for children all over the world.
Being Santa Claus in 2021 means little rest and a whole lot of hand sanitizer. But you won't hear Wagner complaining.
"It's worth every moment, and I can sleep December 26th," he says.
Now that vaccines are widely available, many people are ready to celebrate in person this holiday season. But there are fewer Santa entertainers to spread the cheer. Those who remain are finding demand for their services greater than ever before.
"Most of us are working as hard as we possibly can from early in the morning 'til very late at night," says Stephen Arnold, president and CEO of the professional group IBRBS and a Santa entertainer based in Memphis.
Of course, Santa never lets on how exhausted he may be.
"What they don't realize is that the Santa that's coming from 9 to 11 [p.m.] probably started that morning at 8 or 8:30 or 9 at the daycare center or a breakfast with Santa or something else," 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 are only so many people you can see on one night and squeeze into your calendar," says Arnold. His holiday weekends have been booked since February.
Like Santa himself, those who portray him tend to be older and overweight, factors that can make them vulnerable to COVID-19.
"COVID was devastating for everyone, but more so in the Santa community because, let's be honest, most of us are obese. Most of us have some kind of an affliction that's tied to obesity," says Arnold. "We were quite vulnerable and it's evident from the number of Santas that we lost in our organization."
Mitch Allen, CEO of HireSanta.com, a website that connects customers with Santa entertainers, says he knows of 335 Santa entertainers who died in the past year and he suspects the true number is even higher.
"2020 was an even harder year on the elderly, dealing with COVID," he said.
To be clear, Allen says not all of those deaths were from COVID. But the number is higher than in a typical year.
The threat of COVID is real for the Santa entertainers working the circuit this year. Arnold says he tries to be cautious, worrying about how his job might affect his family.
"I have an immunocompromised wife who's pretty much homebound," he says. "If I brought something home, it most likely would have killed her if it didn't kill me."
When he goes to events, Randyl Wagner carries a sack of white cotton gloves so he can regularly change them out. He also has his suit dry-cleaned regularly and maintains social distancing while performing his Santa duties, which means no sitting on Santa's lap this year.
"I have my hand sanitizer even though I wear gloves," says Wagner. "And I still always carry a mask."
Others have chosen to retire, hanging up their red suits and forgoing their Santa duties. Allen estimates that, between the deaths and retirements, there are 10 to 15 percent fewer entertainers working this year. That, combined with a 120 percent increase in demand, means finding a Santa is tough sledding.
"Today we've already had close to 250 people reach out to us to hire a Santa Claus entertainer," he said on a day in late November. "And we're unlikely to be able to staff many, if any, of those."
But the modern Santa community is a tight-knit one, with entertainers using Facebook groups and e-mail lists to spread the word about events in need of Santas.
"We're trying to overcome any shortages you may have heard of," says Arnold. "And regardless of what you may have heard, Santa will be there on Christmas."