ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Craig McTavish — a.k.a. Santa — has the beard. He has the belly. He even has a few tricks up his sleeve, like pulling up to parties on his Harley-Davidson in full Kris Kringle garb.
But there's one thing he doesn't have: work.
For freelance Santas, this holiday season has been more "no, no, no," than "ho, ho, ho." Bookings have declined as paying $125 an hour for Santa to visit a holiday party has become an unaffordable luxury. It's the second year of declining parties and events, Santas say.
"This year has been a bust as far as making any money," said McTavish, a retired firefighter who co-owns a landscaping business with his son. "I've booked nothing. Usually there's always something for Christmas Eve, but I don't even have that."
In addition to knowing which children have been bad or good, the modern-day Santa also hears which families don't have enough money for presents.
"You can see the downturn from the chair," said Nicholas Trolli, the president of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas — a 1,700-member social group the Boston Herald once dubbed "The Nation's Premier Fraternity of A-List Santas."
Trolli lives in Sarasota, Fla., but travels around the country as a hired Santa. On a recent day, he worked a mall in Kansas City that had to lower photo prices by 20 percent.
"People are telling us they just can't afford a photo with Santa," Trolli said.
Even in-demand Santas with real beards have had to slash rates, Trolli said. They once commanded $200 an hour, but now they're charging half that.
Trolli said that anecdotally, his members' bookings are off about 25 percent. Other Santas around the nation said that in good years, they booked 40 events a season and are down to fewer than 10. Others who once booked 10 events a year are down to none.
Most Santas don't rely on the gigs as a primary source of income, but they say they enjoy doing it and the extra money is nice.
John Wenner, a Santa with a real beard from Woodbury Heights, N.J., said his last good year was 2008, when he booked dozens of private parties and corporate jobs. This season, he's only had a few gigs.
"They're way down this year," Wenner said. "It's amazing how down. I've even cut back my price a little bit, to help sway a little more business. As it is, the way the economy has been, it's getting tough."
Despite the less-than-jolly economic climate, Santas said the joys of the job mostly make up for the tough times.
They love talking to kids, making adults laugh and spreading some holiday cheer in a year where joy has been in short supply. Several mentioned buying presents — or even Christmas trees — for needy families. Trolli's group encourages members to book charity events for free or reduced prices if they don't get paying gigs.
A lucky few — mostly in wealthier parts of the country — are reporting a booming business.
Doug Peters of Davie, Fla., said he's had an excellent couple of years; last year, a wealthy customer on the exclusive South Florida enclave of Fisher Island asked him to work Christmas Eve. Peters charged $500 an hour and the customer didn't blink.
Still, being Santa isn't cheap. A decent-looking fake-fur trimmed red jacket, hat, pants and boots cost upward of $1,000. And that's not even counting an authentic-looking beard.
Walter J. Wood — also known as Santa Woody — is a Phoenix-area Kris Kringle who looks like something out of a holiday Coca-Cola ad. The $100 an hour he charges "really doesn't recoup the costs," he said, especially when you take into account gas, travel time and the expense of miscellaneous items like beard glue.
"I glue my beard on — no one else does that," said Wood, whose other job as a painting contractor also hasn't had much success this year. "I can eat a cookie in front of a kid and the kid won't know."
Steve Robinson, a 47-year-old Santa in St. Petersburg, Fla. whose main job is as a grocery store baker, has another suspicion about why he's gotten fewer bookings this year.
"The kids are learning younger and younger that Santa isn't real and that mom and dad buy the presents," he sighed. "I can pretty much light up a room as long as the kids are 10 and under."