Rev. Dr. Leroy Barber, aka Black Santa, uses a giant snow globe to keep everyone safe at his events during the pandemic.

Rev. Dr. Leroy Barber, aka Black Santa, uses a giant snow globe to keep everyone safe at his events during the pandemic.

courtesy of Leroy Barber

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Last year, many professional Santas talked to kids virtually. That was before the big vaccine rollout and long before FDA approval for vaccinating kids as young as 5. In year two of the pandemic, the holiday landscape looks a little different. And more people are seeking out in-person Santa visits. Professional Santas are in demand for public and private events and, in some cases, that demand outstrips what these friendly, bearded individuals came to expect in pre-pandemic years.

Rev. Dr. Leroy Barber, aka Black Santa PDX, says he’s doing at least twice as many events this year as he did in 2019. Susan Mesco has also seen explosive demand for in-person Santas. She’s the founder and director of the Professional Santa Claus School and president of American Events & Promotions and SantaVisitsUSA. We hear from Barber, Mesco and Barb Wright, owner of Oodles Toy Store in Portland.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller:  Here is a quick warning to parents before we actually start our next conversation, it’s become a kind of annual caveat. We’re going to be talking about Kris Kringle (S A N T A) for the people who maybe aren’t spelling yet, but care about the magic of the season, I don’t think we’re going to be grinching on the magic of the season, but we are going to be talking about the fact that professionals put on the classic red and white suit. So if that’s going to cause problems in your household, this is your chance to turn off the radio. Okay, here we go. After last year’s first COVID-19 Christmas, it seems that many people want to get back to some of their old traditions that might include taking their kids to see Santa. But nationwide it seems that there are not enough santas to meet that demand. We’re going to get a couple perspectives on this right now. We start with the Reverend Dr. Leroy Barber, he is the Director of Innovation for an Engaged Church for the Greater Northwest Area of the United Methodist Church. For a few months out of the year he is also Black Santa PDX. Welcome back to Think out Loud.

Reverend Dr. Leroy Barber: Thanks for having me back. Good to be here.

Miller:  It’s good to have you on. How does this year compare to last in terms of the amount of bookings you’re getting calls about the amount of calls you’re getting?

Barber: The calls are piled up. We are probably double of what we were last year and even before COVID-19.

Miller: So not just more than last year, but more than pre COVID-19?

Barber: Yes.

Miller: Those are two different things. But let’s start with the increase from last year. How do you explain it? What do you think is happening?

Barber: Well, we have a big snow globe that I sit in to take pictures and we made a decision to continue that and maybe families want to continue to be safe. We also are just growing in popularity around Oregon and I think people want to see  a black Santa, a Santa of Color and I think that’s just a growing thing in our area.

Miller: We talked about the snow globe thing last year. You came up with the idea or a friend of yours did I think to put yourself inside this gigantic plastic bubble. So you’re basically inside a snow globe. That way kids can still be close to Santa, but you’re not breathing the same air. And it’s your sense that that’s one of the reasons that families are happy to have you around? \

Barber: I think so because most families actually, all families that come to see me are masked– the parents and kids– and they walk up masked and the only time they take them off is when they take their pictures so I think families are being extremely careful and the globe represents that. Also, you still get the magic of Santa.

Miller: What kinds of reactions have you been getting from kids this year?

Barber: We have a lot of requests for a lot of different toys that some, I don’t know because I’m older.

Miller: But that sounds like the classic. That’s why you’re there, right, kids come up and tell you what they want?

Barber:  Yeah. So I didn’t know what an L. O. L. Doll was. I do now but that’s a highly-requested item this year.  I think it’s just the magic of the moment. Kids seem to be into it still even older kids and we get adults coming to take pictures with Santa. So I just think a little bit of joy, a little bit of something good in people’s lives are what people are craving and Santa represents that.

Miller: It is still the case that a lot of the kids who are coming to you are kids of Color?

Barber:  Probably about 70% of the kids who come to us are kids of Color, Biracial kids, families a lot, and members of the LGBTQIA community come who have adopted children of Color.

Miller: What’s it meant to you to put the suit back on this season after yet another difficult and you know disrupted year.

Barber: I feel like I get the opportunity to see a part of society that is hopeful and wants a little bit of joy and wants to celebrate and I get to see that from a perspective from behind a suit that represents that. I just feel that people really want just a little bit of it and they make comments about that as well.

Miller:  Saying that you’re giving us a little bit of goodness in the world?

Barber:  We try to do up the room or outside where we put up lights and blow up globes and all kinds of things and it just takes people away for a few minutes or as long as they’re in line.

Miller: Leroy Barber, thanks very much.

Barber:  Thanks for having me on.

Miller:  For a national perspective on the current Santa situation, I’m joined by Susan Mesco. She’s the founder and director of the Professional Santa Claus School in Denver and the president of American Events and Promotions and Santa Visits USA, a booking company for Santas.  Susan Mesco, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Susan Mesco: Thanks Dave for inviting me.

Miller: Thanks for joining us. What are you seeing in the big picture in terms of Santa demand this year?

Mesco: Santa demand is off the charts. I think we all held our breath until about March and then the booking started flooding in and I call it a season of ho, ho, hope.

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Miller: [Laughter] Ho ho hope.  Wait.  So you said you were holding your breath in March, but meaning as early as the very beginning of the spring, that’s when people are booking Santas.

Mesco: Well, Dave, there’s no rest. Christmas morning at 5:30 I probably have maybe 80 of my local clients that call me to book their Santa for the next year. But I think this year people really kind of held off and once the vaccine became available, people just went ah ha, COVID-19 is going to go away, we’re all going to be cured, we can take off our masks and have fun. I miss my family. I want to hug them. I want to be with them again. People are just breaking out. They just really need that human connection and Santa Claus has always been kind of a centerpiece. Here in Denver I do over 1300 events and this year I’m up around 1700 events already and turning people away and trying to squeeze people in if they call me, obviously everybody wants Santa Friday, Saturday and Sunday trying to say, hey, look, why don’t we have, you know, why don’t you fire up that outdoor, you know, fire pit and we can have a Santa and S’mores Party on a Tuesday night. So people are really finding fun ways to do that.  I’m working with an ice cream factory so after school we’ve got 15 bookings with them. The children can come in, write their letters to Santa.  See Santa on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and give him the letters, so finding very creative ways to try to fit in as many people as possible.

Miller: As we just heard from Leroy Barber, he’s seeing more demand now, not just than last year, but more than pre-pandemic. And he’s also explained that partly by the fact that there are very few black Santas or Santas of Color and there’s more and more interest for very little supply. But I’m curious if broadly that tracks with what you’ve seen, just more interesting Santas now than ever before?

Mesco: Well, let me preface this by ]saying] that in 2020 and 2021, we did our Santa Claus Schools and we did online schools and online training and courses, but there were still a lot of people who were a little hesitant to travel to be in a hotel conference setting for 5-6 days. So those past two years, even though we did Santa School, virtually those Santas didn’t go out and get to be Santa. So normally I would have 60 or more students in each class, we were down to 15 students. And then in 2020 we had, I think about 35 new Santas come in. A lot more had wanted to come, but because of COVID-19, they didn’t come in September. So I’m figuring that I’m down somewhere between 150 and 200 new infused santas because there’s a cycle as Santas get older, they lose their hearing, they don’t want to drive at night, maybe a little dementia creeping in, their knees don’t work. They can’t walk as well. The Santas retire. And then COVID-19 did take a toll on our genre of Santas obviously because they’re in that spectrum of very susceptible to COVID-19. So we had Santas who in 2020 said I was thinking of retiring in a couple years but I’m just going to turn in the suit. So I’ve had about 13 guys that have worked for me come by and hand me their suits and say give it a good home. So we’ve had retiring Santas, Santas who are taken by COVID-19, less Santas coming to Santa Claus School, more people wanting to get together with their families and have Christmas and have celebrations. So both of those are the perfect storm of making it look like there’s a shortage. Let me tell you what, Dave, there’s only one Santa and he’s still at the North Pole. Okay?

Dave: (Laughter) Okay. I hear you loud and clear but I was really struck by a line I saw in a CNN article about this recently quoting the owner of a different Santa booking agency who said that the average working Santa is in his mid sixties and weighs 248 pounds, obviously serious risk factors for COVID-19 illness. How many Santas are you aware of who have died because of COVID-19?

Mesco: Well, among the guys that I work with on a regular basis out of maybe 500-600 Santas, I lost 74 Santas.

Miller: That is a breathtaking number.

Mesco: It’s heartbreaking. It really is. They didn’t just work for me. These guys have been through my school, they were dear friends for 15, 20 years. So it’s tragic. It’s tragic. But we need to keep our eyes on families that want to pass down these traditions. They want to have a pure hero come in. They want that that magic of Christmas and so–I’m not really trying to kill my guys that are still working for me– but most of them have bookings from eight o’clock in the morning, starting with preschools, elementary schools in the afternoon, Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and restaurants and what not from 3 to 6 and then refashioned home visits from 7:00 till 9:00 at night and this is Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. So they asked me if I was trying to kill them [laughter] and I said no. We’re really trying to handle the volume that’s coming in with the circumstances the way they are and I have a prediction that next year it’s going to be better, worse, better, worse. So  even more bookings because more people will have kind of broken free of the “COVID-19 chains’ and feel a lot more confident about having a party for even those people who held off this year. And we developed numerous virtual pro virtual parties online parties that are interactive and a lot of fun with Santa, not just a boring Zoom with games and sing alongs and just a lot of really fun, fun, fun things.  Those people that have maintained being virtual from 2020-21, I believe that these are national companies that have offices in, you know 15, 20 places across the country that will be booking all of their Christmas parties again. So I think we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg as far as what we call the Santa shortage only every single day, I am getting 15 to 20 guys who want to enroll in my school and I’m foreseeing having to put my school on twice as many times as normal.

Miller: Susan stay with us, I want to bring one more voice in the conversation that I have questions about your school. Barb Wright is the owner of the Oodles Toy Store in Southeast Portland.  Barb, welcome to the show.

Barb Wright: Hi, thank you.

Miller: Thanks for joining us. My understanding is you took over the Oodles Toy Store just in January of this year and your plan was to have a Santa event now this season. What was the setup going to be?

Wright: Well this setup was originally going to be during our neighborhood shopping event and then that ended up not happening, but we were going to have Santa in the store and online booking so that we could control the crowd a little bit better and basically schedule everyone out so we weren’t too crowded. And we were in the midst of working out all the details such as sitting on a stool in front of Santa. So we’re not on Santa’s lap, that sort of thing. And that was the plan.

Miller: And then what happened?

Wright: And then as we were working on our COVID-19 protocol and more questions were coming and we’re getting everyone booked up for their climate lots.  I wanted to be able to advertise that Santa was vaccinated because I assumed it and I found out that in fact he wasn’t vaccinated and had to do a quick a quick change and decided it just wasn’t worth the risk with all the kids coming through. So then we had to cancel Santa at the last minute.

Miller: Did you try to find a vaccinated Santa? Or by that point it was too late?

Wright: It was getting very close and I actually had made a public announcement and one of the other toy stores in town messaged me and asked if it was the same stance as she had and they said no. We conferred and it turned out her Santa also was unvaccinated (a different person)  and it was just getting too close to the end game and we had to just cancel.

Miller: How did folks respond when you announced you were canceling Santa?

Wright: Well it was a disappointment but every single response was positive whether  just thank you for doing that or we’re disappointed, but I’m glad that you made the call that way. So everyone was relieved that that was a decision made.

Miller:  Barb Wright, thanks very much for joining us.

Wright: Thank you.

Miller: So Susan, let’s go back to you. How do you deal with Santas and vaccinations?

Wright: All of my Santas have been vaccinated except one and he’s an ice skating Santa so he’s out on an ice rink six days a week. He’s outside wearing his mask. We set up Santa-tizing stations at every one of our events that have disposable masks and tissues and face wipes and hand sanitizer. And people are very thankful. All of our Santas are in the bubble, the hard plastic bubble masks so that you can see their face and see their smiles. It doesn’t make for the best picture but at least the children can see that Santa is smiling at them. But all the Santas that I’m working with except that one are all vaccinated, have had all of their shots and their boosters. So I’m feeling pretty confident, my Santas have invested about $300- $400 in gloves. My Santas changed their gloves every 20 minutes. They wear a suit twice and then it gets dry cleaned. So the dry cleaning bills this year are excruciating.

Miller: Susan the clock is ticking down. And I have to ask you about Santa School that you run because I couldn’t believe how intense this is–180 hours of online instruction. It seems like a doctoral level class in Santa Studies. What are your Santa’s learning in 180 hours before a five day in-person conference?

Wright: Well, we talked to them about the suits that they want to wear and how they customize that.We work with them on working with autistic children. And we start their studies in sign language. They study child development so they know that a three year old needs something different than an eight year old needs so that Santas’ conversations can be different. We work with them on getting their makeup kit together because today’s cameras and virtual Zoom sessions and what not get put up on 270 inch screens on screen TVs. So we want to make sure that they look like storybook Santas. We work with them before they get there by bleaching their beards and taking care of their hair conditioning. It is just endless the amount of things that we do. We have 30 different ways to work with hesitant children. So it’s very comprehensive. It is the most intensive Santa Claus School in the country, probably the world.

Miller:  Your current schedule seems really grueling. It seems like you’re fitting six months of work into a month and a half. We have just 40 seconds left, but what are you going to do on December 26?

Barber:  Payroll.

Miller: (Laughter) You’re still working, okay.

Barber: My next day off will be like February 8th which is my birthday and everything needs to be blue, nothing can be red or white. Nothing.

Miller: That’s the rule. Okay, you’re done with red and white by then. Susan Mesco, it was a real wild ride talking to you. Thank you.

Barber: Thank you. Dave, Merry Christmas

Miller:  To you, too.

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