Santa Claus appeared at Sugar Crazy in Plainview on Sunday and spoke about the increase in demand for his services this holiday season. Newsday's Steve Langford reports. Credit: James Carbone

Sugar Crazy’s owner thought that having Santa Claus visit the Plainview candy and gift store a few times in December would be a treat for the shop’s young fans.

But hiring St. Nicholas proved to be challenging, Ann DeSanto said.

During most of November, she tried to hire a Santa by visiting entertainment booking websites and making phone calls, she said. But most of the Santas couldn’t be reached or were already booked.

"We would call numbers that had been disconnected. So, it was pretty frustrating," said DeSanto, who was finally able to book a Santa from a friend’s referral.

Many businesses, organizations and families that are trying to book the rotund, bearded gift giver for visits this holiday season are running into the same issue: a Santa shortage.

"It’s absolutely a supply and demand issue. There’s not enough," said Mark Steiner, chief executive officer of GigSalad, an online marketplace where people can book entertainment and event services, such as Santas, DJs and bartenders.

The COVID-19 pandemic is largely to blame.

There are fewer men signed up as St. Nick this year on Hire Santa, an online booking company, due to some of the entertainers dying from the virus or other causes, said Mitch Allen, the founder of the Fort Worth, Texas-based company.

Also, because Santa typically is played by seniors, who are among the high-risk groups for contracting COVID, many are opting out of holiday events, especially since children younger than 5 cannot receive vaccines, according to professionals in the Santa business.

Meanwhile, client demand has risen, as individuals and businesses are resuming hosting social gatherings after many were canceled last year due to the pandemic.

There are 10% fewer Santas registered on Hire Santa this year, while there has been a 121% increase in client demand compared to 2019, the company said.

At GigSalad, there were 14,820 client requests for Santa from Sept. 1 to Dec. 5, 2019. That number fell to 8,334 in 2020. So far this year there have been 17,466, an 18% increase over 2019, Steiner said.

He attributed the record-breaking business to cabin fever – people cooped up for more than a year are ready to celebrate at gatherings with friends and family again.

"Now people know how quickly that all can be taken away from them," he said.

Due to health concerns, 31% of 372 Santas nationwide switched to virtual visits this year, according to the 2021 Red Suit Survey conducted by several university professors and Tim Connaghan, a 52-year Santa veteran who works high-profile gigs, such as TV commercials for Oreo and Target.

"COVID has changed a lot of things in our lives and this is one of the things that have changed with Santas," said Connaghan, 73, who relocated from Amityville to South Carolina in March, but still travels to New York for Santa gigs.

The rising demand for Santa but falling supply has created a bright spot for St. Nick beyond the joy he brings to children: rising pay.

Pay is up 10% to 15% this year for Santas, who can earn $6,000 to $10,000 a season working full-time as St. Nick, according to Hire Santa.

Port Jefferson Station resident John Gebbie, who has been playing Santa for seven years at private homes, corporate events, weddings and other places, gets most of his referrals through GigSalad.

Since November, he has received 250 inquiries, five times more than usual, he said.

"It’s absolutely phenomenal," said Gebbie, 75, who is accepting fewer jobs than normal because of a medical condition that is not related to COVID.

Despite the scramble to secure Santas, Gebbie hasn’t raised his prices. "That wouldn’t be fair. That’s not what Santa’s about," said Gebbie, who suited up for his Santa appearance at Sugar Crazy on Sunday .

East Northport resident Michael Maione, 70, is a second-generation Santa who has been playing St. Nick since 2019.

His Santa bookings and revenue are 10 times higher than they were in 2019, he said.

"It seems to be more demand …. which could be a factor of people are anxious to party again because they weren’t able to last year, he said.

"And the fact that I have a real [white] beard this year, which makes me more appealing because kids are pretty savvy. They can tell a fake beard," he said.

There are more than 1,275 full-season San­ta jobs, such as those at shopping malls, currently unfilled across the industry, according to Hire Santa.

Six of Long Island’s eight major malls booked their 2021 Santas through Cherry Hill Programs. The Marlton, New Jersey-based company, which runs most American malls’ holiday programs, including booking Santa, elves, photographers and other helpers, declined Newsday’s requests for comment.

At Samanea New York, formerly called The Mall at the Source, in Westbury, pop-up tenant Christmas House Long Island — which features 12 interactive holiday-themed rooms — came up with an alternative when it was unable to hire a Santa for the season.

It created a photo-ready display with a large Santa chair where visitors can sit surrounded by gifts and a robotic Santa, said Justin Schwartz, founder of Christmas House Inc.

"People seem much more excited about that than having to wait in a line to meet Santa … and to do it in the comfort of being around the people you came with as opposed to, ‘Here’s some stranger that you’ve never met and sit on their lap,’" he said.

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