No no no! Santa in short supply this year

Veteran Santas say they’re busier than ever, thanks to post-COVID-19 celebrations, nostalgia and a need for escapism.

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Rick Rzeszutko, dressed as Santa Claus, sits in a sleigh at 900 North Michigan Shops. The men in red suits are in high demand and in short supply this season.

Rick Rzeszutko, dressed as Santa Claus, sits in a sleigh at the 900 North Michigan Shops. The men in red suits are in high demand and short supply this season.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Keith Stras keeps his custom crimson suit and $1,400 white-beard-and-wig set at the ready — just in case.

But Stras, who owns Chicago Santas and has been in the ho ho ho business for 49 years, mostly does the booking, dispatching his 25 Santas to department stores, hotel lobbies, zoos and the like.

This year, things are a little different.

“I do play Santa when the need arises, and the need has arisen many times this season already,” said Stras, who is based in Schaumburg.

In fact, he’s booked solid this weekend. And it’s true for Santas all across Chicago. Many have more work than they can handle, having to tell disappointed party organizers they won’t be able to attend. And they aren’t just busier than they were during the pandemic when a lot of work dried up or went online. Some say this is the most hectic year they can recall.

“It’s at least 40% more than we’ve ever done,” Stras said.

He offered a day’s itinerary for one of his Santas, who had a four-hour gig at Hotel Zachary in Wrigleyville, followed by six hours at the Berghoff restaurant in the Loop and then two hours at the Palmer House hotel.

“Every one of our Santas is booked like that,” he said.

Nostalgia, a need to escape the grim realities of life and the recent openings of German Christmas markets in Aurora and Wrigleyville, among other places — are all reasons Stras cited for the increased demand for Santa.

“In times of economic strife … people are looking to get happiness, looking to get holiday cheer, and they’re looking for any way to do it, and the best way is to hire a Santa Claus,” Stras said.

Dina Morgan, president of the Barrington-based Mane In Heaven Miniature Therapy Horses, started calling in September to find Santas for two separate events. She booked one, but then had a heck of a time finding another.

“It was frustrating that we couldn’t find anybody. Every time we would call, they were booked,” Morgan said.

After the eighth try, a volunteer with her organization finally found a Santa, Morgan said.

Curt Maas, who runs rentasantachicagoland.com, said he started getting calls in May about appearances.

“I’ve been getting a lot of calls. I sense there is a shortage because people are asking if I know of any Santas,” Maas said.

Most people are asking for weekends, and those are all full, he said.

He began his Santa business 30 years ago in Chicago but moved to Oklahoma two years ago for non-Santa work. He’s back here for the season, in an extended-stay hotel, because the demand for Santa is so great.

“By August, I had enough business so that it made sense to move back here for this time,” he said.

Roger Steele, a Dyer, Indiana-based Santa, said he, too, is busier than he’s ever been.

“Many people are just done with the COVID thing and want to get back to the normal life, ready to move on with their parties,” Steele said.

He said COVID-19 restrictions likely led some Santas to quit the business.

“Some of them had just had enough. I was extremely frustrated. It was hard being Santa and not being able to have a child on your lap and that personal conversation with them,” Steele said.

Becoming Santa isn’t just a matter of throwing on a red-and-white suit and plopping down in a gaudy chair for a couple of hours, veteran actors say.

A good custom suit can cost up to $2,000 — without the beard and hair.

“We don’t sell photos. We don’t sell trinkets. We don’t sell anything but the spirit of Christmas and Santa Claus,” Stras said. “And when I hire people, either you got it or you don’t have it.”

John Sullivan has had it for about 30 years. The Streamwood-based Santa is 83. It’s exhausting, he said. He still loves the job, but lifting kids onto his lap all day takes a toll on his back.

“I could do a lot more, but because of my age I’ve cut back a little bit,” he said.

When he did a seven-hour shift recently, all he wanted to do at the end of it was go home to bed.

“I’ve turned down a lot of jobs this year,” he said. “I’ve been getting way more calls than I can handle.”

There is at least one advantage to being in great demand, he said. He can be choosier.

“I’ll wait until a really nice event and take that,” Sullivan said.

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