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.