Santa shortage in northern Illinois comes as more step away from profession over health, security concerns

Demand is also going up, as many have ‘a need and a want for a little bit of magic,’ one person said

Santa talks to Scarlett Szafranowski, 4, at the Shorewood-Troy Public Library.

Downtown Crystal Lake has more than a dozen Santa Claus meet-and-greets to staff this holiday season, but so far is struggling to fill the shifts.

To help fix the problem, the nonprofit hired a Santa Claus broker, but when that was too expensive for its budget, officials started approaching men in public who could pass as Santa, Executive Director Lynn Reckamp said.

“It’s like a bad Hallmark movie,” Reckamp said. “It’s been a challenge.”

A nationwide Santa Claus shortage has found its way to northern Illinois, and some organizations across the area are having difficulty staffing their event schedules that include visits from Saint Nick.

Some in and around the business, such as Braidwood resident Jerry Curl, who runs Santa Services and has worked as Santa for decades, said much of the shortage can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those at Downtown Crystal Lake said one of their longtime Santas stepped away this past year because of security concerns.

To help replace its longtime Santa, Downtown Crystal Lake tried to hire a nationwide Santa broker based out of Crystal Lake.

Reckamp said the company’s services didn’t fit their budget, leaving the nonprofit to make up the difference elsewhere. They’ve reached out to local groups for help.

Amy Hibbard and Gerald Curl get ready to meet the children’s as Mr. and Mrs. Claus at the Shorewood-Troy Public Library.

“We’re pretty much asking everybody we know,” Reckamp said. “We’re scrambling.”

For Curl, COVID-19 is both causing the shortage and increasing the demand, as some Santas stepped away to avoid going out into public as much.

But coming out of the pandemic, Curl thinks many people also are looking to get back to celebrating the holidays.

“There’s always a need and a want for a little bit of magic,” Curl said. “A lot of people seem to have lost it over [COVID-19] and they want it back.”

Reckamp said she thinks times are changing, which has made many possible Santas more cautious. For example, kids are no longer sitting on Santa’s lap at meet-and-greets and instead stand off to the side.

Last year, the nonprofit had to call 911 a couple times because of kids misbehaving.

“I think security is part of it,” Reckamp said. “I definitely think it’s a different time.”

Jack Dell, 4, leans in as Santa reads a story to the children at the Shorewood-Troy Public Library.

The price of being Santa also can be steep. Reckamp said she has had to buy parts of costumes because she isn’t sure if those she’s hired will have their own.

Curl said some Santa costumes can cost thousands of dollars, but he provides the suits to those who work with him. While Curl said the price to hire Santa has gone up around the country, the reason is not tied to demand.

Instead, it’s tied to the cost of everything needed to carry out a performance going up, such as candy canes, which are costing more.

The cost Curl charges also changes depending on the circumstances. He said he reduces the cost for nonprofits and won’t charge anything for certain visits, such as a child in hospice care.

“Some of these guys charge up to $500 an hour,” he said. “My rate hasn’t changed since 1992 until this past year.”

Many events in Woodstock have had the same Santa for more than 20 years, chamber Marketing Manager Melissa McMahon said.

Santa greets Sarah Blackburn and her children Casey, 3, and Emily, 5, at the Shorewood-Troy Public Library.

As a result, the city has not had a hard time finding a Santa, McMahon said.

Every year, the chamber gets requests from people looking to hire a Santa for personal events, but McMahon said there hasn’t been a noticeable uptick thus far this year.

Woodstock’s Santa Chris Cantwell said in 21 years he “has never taken a dime” working as Santa, and any pay from the city or from organizations for his performances is given to charity.

“I’m in a place in my life where giving back to the community is more important to me than earning money,” he said. “I get more than I think I give.”

Though Cantwell gets approached for private events, he often turns them down, he said. The ones he does are based on an understanding that any pay he would receive would go to a charity.

This year has been no different, but he said he hasn’t noticed a huge difference in the number of requests he gets.

“There are people who will call at the last minute,” he said. “They always do. … We’re in the business of saying, ‘yes.’ ”