Santas facing ‘skint’ Christmas share secrets to surviving financially this year

Coronavirus has been an economic disaster, with thousands of jobs lost and entire industries decimated.

Among those feeling the pandemic pinch are the men whose job is to spread festive cheer, even though they might not be feeling so merry themselves.

Britain's professional Santas are facing a Christmas unlike any other, from socially distanced grottos to sleigh sanitiser to the end of having kids on their knee.

Newcastle teacher Brian Gibson started his Santa career as his college's resident Saint Nick, which turned into regular work at the iconic shopping centre Fenwick.

"They loved us because I'm a bubbly person, I don't just sit and say 'ho ho'," he told the Daily Star.

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"I have a really good time with the kids, it's more like a party."

Eventually he built a sleigh and grotto and started his own business (which also sees him perform as the Easter Bunny in spring) in which he does home and restaurant visits – until everything changed early this year.

"The grotto I normally use, I have to take the front off because of social distancing, I'm just sitting on my throne and chatting," he said.

"When I go around restaurant tables, I've got my gloves on while I'm handing out gifts."

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However there's one thing he won't let get in the way of spreading festive cheer – masks.

"I don't use a mask, but with the beard I've got you can hardly see my mouth," he explained.

"Masks ruin it for the kids."

Brian says he's "definitely" facing financial struggles this year, especially as Newcastle has been in Tier 3 for weeks.

He's had to pivot to doing more video calls with kids and has been posting frequently on his YouTube channel.

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"I can't do home visits, so finances have dropped massively – they're usually quite lucrative," he said.

John Cameron, who's based outside Belfast, has been hit doubly hard by the lockdown because he works in the hospitality and tourism trade when he's not being Santa.

"In January 2020 we were taking bookings, of course we had no idea what would happen," he told the Daily Star.

His typical December circuit of home visits and parties has been severely scaled down to avoid household mixing, and he now sets up his sleigh outdoors to minimise the risk of infection.

While private Santa events would typically involve at least 25 people, this year they've been on a much smaller scale which John said is actually better for kids as they get more one-on-one time with Santa.

"There have been lots of bookings this year with autistic kids who can't stand large events, so it has positives as well."

John usually switches on the Belfast Christmas lights with the mayor, but the much-anticipated annual event had to be pre-recorded this year, "something I never thought we'd have to do".

Like Brian, he too has had to pivot to online Santa performances, which get thousands of views but don't exactly rake in the cash.

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"There'll be a major difference this year in earnings, a lot of santa grottos have all been closed in Ireland for lockdown," John said.

"We lost the first two weeks of trading for the Christmas season, which would normally be 55-70% of our total trade."

While there have been a lot of cancellations from worried parents, John's Santa business is still at full capacity because of the closure of shopping centres.

"It's an alternative to still have Santa in a safe environment with PPE," he said.

"We're also doing a lot of snapshots and videos to recoup some of that income. The events side is down 40 to 50%, but luckily people have moved to personal Santa experiences."

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John's grotto is socially distanced and operates on a one-in-one-out system.

"Just simple things like Santa getting off the sleigh and giving kids a high-five, we can't do this year. Holding little ones for photos can't happen this year, and before they get on the sleigh they have to use the 'Santa-tiser' on their hands."

Coronavirus has incurred a lot of personal costs for Santa businesses which are having to fork out for expensive PPE and hygiene products.

"The product we use to sanitise the sleigh is £92 for a five-litre drum," John said.

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"We're having to take that on our profit margins this year, plus the cost of masks and hand sanitiser."

But things could be looking up. At the time of the interview, Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister had just granted permission for professional Santas to go inside people's homes.

"The most important thing to say is Santa Claus will be coming to boys and girls this Christmas," John said.

"The work in the North Pole is continuing and Christmas won't be cancelled, particularly when so many families are struggling."

Brian says he's tried to comfort kids who keep asking Santa when things can go back to normal, but doesn't want to give them false hope.

"I would never promise a child anything, I say 'I'll see what I can do'. I'd love to say hopefully this will all be over soon, but I can't."

He added: "Christmas won't be the same, but I will make it special."

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