Since the pandemic, it’s felt like we’ve always had something threatening the holiday season, from lockdowns to supply chain disruptions to grounded flights. Last year, we were warned of a Christmas tree shortage—what could be worse than that?
2023 answers that question with a Santa Claus shortage. New Englanders are reporting that it’s becoming harder and harder to find enough Santas to meet public demand. But we can’t lose hope, and this week’s edition of the Joy Beat is showcasing why. Bill Barnsley, also known as Santa Bill, joined GBH’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath to rescue us from our gloom. The following is a lightly edited transcript.
Arun Rath: I’ll encourage listeners to go to the web and check it out because you’re already all decked out. Thank you for coming in character.
Bill Barnsley: It’s my pleasure.
Rath: So, first tell us about your own experience being a Santa or 'Santa-ing', if you can use it as a verb. How long have you been a Santa, and what has been your sort of Santa beat?
Barnsley: Well, I’ve been a Santa for about five years now. I was thrust into it. I was working at my job. They needed a Santa. I did not have anything to prepare myself as far as my looks or anything to be Santa, but they stuck me in a suit, a cheap nylon beard and sent me out to do pictures with Santa in one of the areas of the store.
I knew I wasn’t looking as good as one should to be Santa, but I had some amazing experiences. I came home, talked to Mrs. Claus and said, “Hey, how do you feel about making this a thing?” She said yes. I decided to see if I could grow a beard. That worked out well, and so I began my Santa career.
I do a mix of professional and charity events. I haven’t done much in the way of what would be considered small events where you sit on your Santa chair, or your Santa throne, and you have a line of children. I’ve done them, but that’s not my focus. This weekend, we’re doing a large one for UMass Memorial Medical Center. I’m doing another one for a toy drive on Saturday. Saturday night, I’ll be doing something that’s more like a mall-style event. It’s been wonderful.
Rath: Tell us more about the range of events beyond the Mall Santa, the kind of things that you do and how you perform as a Santa in those different situations.
Barnsley: Well, as a base, at every one I perform the same. I’m Santa, and that’s what one needs to be to do that job. The only thing that changes is the kind of engagement. If I’ve got a few seconds with someone, what I’ll do is quick, as opposed to if I’ve got 15 to 20 minutes with a child, I’ll go into a lot of discussion about how the year’s been, what makes them happy, why do they like this toy—you know, into detail about their favorite cookie or what my favorite cookie is.
Because I look like Santa all the time with the beard, with the hair, even when I’m walking around wearing non-Christmas clothes, children will sometimes see me—especially in the season—and are convinced they saw Santa. What I prefer to do in those instances, I recognize the parents are busy. They’re trying to get to the grocery store, they’re trying to get home, there’s homework or baths or dinner or all the pressures of just running a house in front of them. They don’t need 10 or 15 minutes of me giving Santa to their child.
In those cases, most of what I do is I won’t stop walking. I’ll look at the kid, acknowledge that I’ve seen them, and I’ll ask them if they still like cookies. They will nod yes or shout yes, and I’ll say I still like cookies too. I’ll say, “Well, I’ll see you later!” and I keep moving.
In this four-year-old’s mind, they had a Santa sighting, and they’re excited. But I haven’t taken any time from what their parents or guardians are trying to get done in the grocery store. It’s everything from that, or if there is a situation where the time presents itself, 15 to 20 minutes, and everything in between.
Rath: What’s your event schedule like over the holidays? How was it changed by the pandemic?
Barnsley: It’s busy. The pandemic was wild. First of all, we all had to stay home. Boom. So almost all of our Santa businesses and events where we’re used to going to went away. Then, after the pandemic, we’re back out in the wild being Santa.
One thing I find more [is] if we go back to the 80s, there were like 2,500 malls around the country. Fast forward to the last few years; we’re closer to 250 big malls. So you’ve had an almost 90% drop in locations [where] we could possibly go see Santa. With that, where are you going to see him?
Then, you lay on top of that the whole COVID-19 thing. One of the points of the whole virtual visit was that we were bringing Santa to you—bringing Santa to your kitchen table or your living room or Grandma’s house or whatever. We’re coming to you.
We come out of COVID, and we’ve got an awful lot of people that now want to get out again. They’re bursting out of their houses after being confined, and they want to go experience things. They want to see Santa, but I feel that they want to bring Santa to them rather than go see Santa.
Demand’s been crazy. There’s an awful lot of demand that we can’t meet because there’s not enough of us for this accelerated demand. When I read about the shortage of Santas, it’s not like we all quit and went home. It’s just that demand has really gotten much larger. The events are longer. They’re more unusual. They want us at house parties more. They want to add to all kinds of different events we didn’t normally go to.
Rath: It’s interesting hearing about what sort of led to this demand outstripping supply. It almost sounds like—we’ve talked about various other jobs post-pandemic trying to train up more doctors, nurses, first responders—we need to train up a new corps of Santas now.
Barnsley: Well, they are coming online. During COVID, unfortunately, our demographic was very susceptible to COVID. We lost an unpleasant number of our friends.
Rath: That’s so sad to think about. I hadn’t even considered it.
Barnsley: Well, it was a reality. And then, there are some that just chose that time to retire. They said, “I’m not going to take a risk,” and they retired.
But we’ve had an awful lot of newer Santas come on board to fill that gap. The demand, where people are now looking at it with a paradigm shift of bringing Santa to us rather than putting the kids in the car and going to the mall. Malls are still busy, but there’s less of them.
Rath: Bill, you professionally bring joy to a lot of people. What brings you joy?
Barnsley: That. I was at a house party last week, and I came to the door, and there was this little boy a couple of rooms away. He heard my bells. He was, gosh, he had probably just hit four. He comes blasting through the house at me and jumps into my arms, squeezes me and is just yelling, “Santa! You're here! You’re here! You’re here!”
That’s wonderful, but it’s not just the children. What really started me in this business was an interaction I had with a nice lady deep into her 80s. She asked me for another year of health and happiness for her kids and grand kids. I looked her in the eye, and I said, “I remember when you were a little girl and asked me for a doll.” She got teary-eyed. Her granddaughter, who was in her 40s, was taking pictures.
They don’t know who I am personally. They know they saw Santa, but they’ve got a memory. To be able to create those memories with families is amazing.
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