Looking in Santa’s stocking

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

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By now, boys and girls should know whether they merited a stocking full of goodies or a lump of coal this Christmas. But the professional Santas of Southwest Washington knew long before Dec. 25 that they’d have a good holiday this year.

Although high unemployment and continuing economic problems have reportedly hurt the Santa business in parts of the U.S., there was plenty to be jolly about across Clark County and the greater Portland metro area, said Rob Figley, co-chairman of Santa’s Pack. Santa’s Pack is a Portland-Vancouver club for professional Mrs. Clauses, elves and — of course — white bearded men in red velvet suits.

“My business is up 40 percent from last year,” said Figley, a Vancouver-based freelance St. Nick who for 18 years has been bringing cheer to parties and other Christmas events.

Other local St. Nicks also have twinkles in their eyes. Dave Cardiff of east Vancouver booked 42 Santa jobs this year — up 50 percent from 2009. This season has been as strong as any Bill Kerner of Orchards has experienced in 16 years as a pro Santa.

Hourly rates range from $50 to $200, depending on the experience of the Santa and how close to Christmas he’s booked. Those rates have held steady or climbed this year. Few make a living at this, but they can supplement other income by earning a few thousand dollars over the winter.

Local Santas’ success stories fly in the face of a recent report, which suggested that jolly old elves are hearing more “no, no, no” than “ho, ho, ho.”

Nicholas Trolli, president of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, told the Associated Press that bookings are down about 25 percent. Trolli said many malls are paying Santas less than in years past.

Even here, some private photo studios that have hired Santas in the past opted not to invite them back this year, as Kerner learned.

Figley thinks that’s just a sign of the times.

“Nobody is buying pictures any more,” he said. “This is the era of digital photography. People don’t want to have to buy a photograph and stand in line.”

A strong demand for folks who shake when they laugh like a bowl full of jelly may also reflect the our county’s strange economic situation. At the same time as many local people are living on tight budgets and unemployment checks, better-off families are breathing a sign of relief and opening their wallets this season.

About 80 percent of his home visits are to well-to-do households, said Cardiff. “I’ve been to a lot of homes on top of hills,” he said. “I have seen some of the most beautiful views that exist in the Portland and Vancouver area.”

Every Santa I spoke with felt an obligation to make sure that all children have a chance to whisper wishes into a bearded man’s ear. They all volunteer to see kids whose parents can’t afford a hill-top house party — turning up at schools, hospitals and day care centers around Clark County and the rest of the region.

That’s something we can all celebrate.

Courtney Sherwood is The Columbian’s business and features editor. Reach her at 360-735-4561 or courtney.sherwood@columbian.com.