Schansberg: The Grateful Santa

December 17, 2019

by Eric Schansberg, Ph.D.

My wife and I have a friend who has worked at a large retail store as an elf with Santa. She has told us some great stories about the wide variety of Santas and customers she has experienced.

She has nicknamed some of the Santas she encountered. I had heard of “Dirty Santa” before — one of the names for the gift-giving and gift-stealing game we like to play among adults. But she knows other Santas I haven’t met yet: Grumpy Santa, Politically Incorrect Santa, Christian Santa, Actor Santa and Diva Santa.

As a labor economist, I was fascinated to think about the labor market for Santas. It’s temporary and seasonal work. So, Santas are semi-retired or are using their Santa income to supplement their primary gig. Santas and the stores generally rely on an agency to act as a middleman. That’s common for workers who are temporary or in a specialized market with few service providers.

Of course, it’s not efficient for stores to have suits for multiple Santas with their different sizing needs. So part of hiring Santa is hiring (and renting) his uniform. Uniform quality ranges quite a bit, with suits as expensive as $3,000. In case you’re curious: our friend reports that most seem to sport a natural beard and sufficient girth to play the part well.

Santas often rotate between shifts and stores. For a full day at a retail store, working for the whole day would usually be too taxing. And given that the quality of Santas varies, maybe the agencies find it more useful to rotate them, rather than deal with complaints.

In the government’s K-12 schools, unable to fire unproductive teachers easily, schools will sometimes “pass the trash” — moving poor teachers every few years, before parent complaints reach a climax. I wonder if poor Santas get shuffled around the same way. But as with teachers, Santas are often wonderful people who are reasonably effective at their work.

As you might imagine, the customers (adults and children) are also a wide mix, from the kind to the mean, from the quirky to the foul, from the grateful to the ungrateful. Some folks want a picture taken with their dog. Others bring babies with wet or dirty diapers. Some were experiencing this as the only Christmas they would have — because they could not afford anything or because a husband was dogmatically opposed to Christmas in any form.

All of them were receiving a service at no monetary cost. Some are so thankful; others seem to be missing “the reason for the season.” Christmas and old St. Nick have their origins in Christ’s birth and St. Nicholas’s benevolence. In both cases, the historical events are built on grace — unmerited favor, getting something wonderful that we don’t deserve.

In “Behind the Beard: A Santa Claus Journey,” Aaron Bandy describes life as a Santa, including some of his job interviews. He tells the story about one manager who wanted to make sure he was not a trouble-maker. I enjoyed Bandy’s discussion of costumes, children, parents and his gratitude for the opportunity to earn a good side income while doing something he loves.

Christmas can be a challenging time — for those who have recently experienced the loss of a loved one, those with few material resources, those away from family and so on. But ingratitude is never a good way to live. And around Christmas, it is especially ironic and appalling. When you’re tempted to moan and complain, here’s the best gift to give: Count your blessings; help those who are less fortunate; and embrace the grace behind the history of our celebration.

D. Eric Schansberg is Professor of Economics at Indiana University Southeast, adjunct scholar for the Indiana Policy Review Foundation and author of “Turn Neither to the Right not Left: A Thinking Christian’s Guide to Politics and Public Policy.”


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