A quarter-century after his first gig as a Calgary Santa, Michael Shepherd says the city’s economic doldrums haven’t dulled the twinkle in his eyes.
But they have made him adapt to a fiscal reality that’s played Grinch with some of his bigger jobs.
“There was one company with a $1,000 gig and one with a $500 or $600 one — and those are gone,” said Shepherd.
“There are layoffs and not so many kids, but there are some places that have doubled their (Santa) hours.”
The veteran St. Nick said he’s remained busy this holiday season, a dozen years after he left the shopping mall throne to do corporate and other party appearances.
But the nature of some of those jobs has changed.
If companies once had an adult Christmas party and another for their children that both demanded a Santa, “most places have gone just with the kids’,” said Shepherd.
Magicians, he said, are doing worse.
But if one of the city’s few dozen professional jolly old elves are short a few jobs, their red-suited colleagues will come sleighing to the rescue as part of a Santa support network, said Shepherd.
“I’ve turned gigs over to them . . . we all have to work together, we have to,” he said, adding he personally knows 10 other local Santas.
“There’s no need of a union.”
But some things never change, said Shepherd, who’ll join adults in their holiday merriment when the time is right.
When that moment arrives, he’ll peel off his red suit to spare it drink and food spills, and avoid dry-cleaning bills, in favour of underlying Kris Kringle apparel.
“For Kris Kringle, it’s just a puffy shirt, it doesn’t take long to clean,” he said.
The dean of Calgary’s Santa School also said its graduates have had to adapt to lumps of economic coal.
“While we might once have done a lot of corporate things, maybe (there are) more mall things instead,” said Jennifer Andrews.
“Some of our corporate customers are out of business, but if people aren’t paying top dollars, (Santas) are still finding a way to do it.”
Overall, bookings remain numerous, though the Santas have noticed some of the gifts at functions “aren’t as big as they always were, but there are still presents,” said Andrews.
Over the past 10 years, the Santa School has trained hundreds of red-clad mirth-makers while finding its grads bookings, she said.
Some of them have gone on to spread joy in places as far flung as Malaysia, Hong Kong and Sweden.
Calgary’s slumping economy, she said, has only bolstered the number of enrollees at the school.
“These are people that have been laid off or packaged out, and this is something they were definitely interested in pursuing but never had the time,” said Andrews.
Among those doing Santa on the side are an ex-RCMP officer, military vets, a judge, a physiotherapist and a lawyer, she said.
A laid-off oil and gas worker is “an excellent Santa, it’s his whole paycheque,” said Andrews.
No matter what happens to the economy, there’ll always be a place for Santas, catering to both adults and younger true believers, said Shepherd.
“I’ll do this until I die,” he said.
Said Andrews: “You speak to the needs of what they are now — you evolve, you always want to keep the magic alive.”