These are bittersweet days for Tim Lorang, or “Santa Tim,” as he is known among the local ranks of professional Santas.
Lorang, who, with his snow-white beard, gentle baritone and bearish mass looks like an escapee from a colorized version of “Miracle on 34th Street,” is retiring this year from a part-time gig he has (mostly) relished since answering a Craigslist ad a decade ago.
But the swan song of Santa Tim has had its sour notes, as one might expect of a public-facing seasonal worker during a resurgent pandemic.
Lorang, an e-commerce and marketing consultant, purposely underbooked the window from Black Friday to Christmas Eve, the traditional busy season for professional Santas, so that he and his wife, Linda Parker, aka Mrs. Claus, could gently wind things down.
Yet the last several weeks have been a stressful blur of long days, back-to-back gigs and Zoom sessions, with awkward conversations about vaccination status and the near-constant worry about a virus that seems especially ill-disposed toward Christmas and older, Santa-sized gentlemen in particular.
“I think a lot of us Santas are a little bit spooked,” says Lorang, 66. These days, his lush, red outfit is accessorized with festive masks and a pouch on his heavy black belt carries his vaccine card. He tests frequently, watches things like indoor ventilation and declines gigs in private homes. “I don’t want to be in a position of asking … people if they’ve been vaccinated or do all of that hassle for a couple hundred bucks.”
Lorang is hardly the only Santa to have scaled back or stepped away entirely from the Kriss Kringle business as the pandemic enters its second Christmas.
One national survey found that nearly 1 in 5 professional Santas sat out 2021.
Some of that clearly reflects fears about personal safety for workers who are, almost by definition, “in the high-risk category” for COVID-19, says Russell Albright, aka “Santa Russell,” vice president of Norpac, a local Santa trade group.
But the Santa shortage also reflects the challenges of trying to do a job premised on jolliness in the midst of a national emergency.
Indeed, many of those booking Santas lately have specifically requested “a ‘normal’ Santa’s visit,” says Albright. “Meaning that they’re asking for a Santa that is vaccinated and is willing to come unmasked.”
Being Kriss Kringle was a much simpler proposition when Lorang took it up in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash. Laid off from his job as a TV producer/director at UWTV at the University of Washington, Lorang was short of freelance work one November and applied to become one of the Santas at the Macy’s in downtown Seattle.
Lorang was a shoo-in. A former drama student, outgoing and personable, he had understanding of show business and, importantly, a real beard, though it would require bleaching. “I used to kid that if I can’t get a job, I can always be Santa because I look like him,” Lorang says.
Lorang almost gave up. The job paid so poorly ($12 an hour to start) and had such lousy hours (he was often working Christmas Eve and not getting home to his own family until late) that Lorang saw it as little more than a temp job.
That changed when a former Macy’s Santa convinced Lorang he could make a lot more going out on his own. In 2017, Lorang took the plunge. His goal was simply to match his Macy’s income, but after he made “twice as much in just a quarter of the time,” Lorang decided to go “full bore.” He launched a website, posted on an online gig platform and was shortly doing around $15,000 of business each year for what was essentially a few weeks of seasonal work.
Lorang was blown away by scale and the scope of the Santa business. There are trade groups and booking companies; legal niceties, such as background checks and liability insurance; and an annual booking cycle that starts as early as June and allocates talent across venues that run from shopping malls and Christmas tree lots to corporate parties and private events.
Lorang does it all, though his Santa specialty is breweries, a carryover from the local brewery tours he leads when not dressed in red. “I’m kind of the beer Santa,” he jokes.
Lorang also realized he had entered the ranks of profession whose members took their work seriously — sometimes very seriously. There were professional Santa organizations: Norpac, for example, is the local chapter of IBRBS, formerly known as the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, which is not to be confused with the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas or the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas.
There are workshops on Santa techniques such as effective storytelling and posing for pictures in the age of the selfie. There is also what might be called the Santa Identity, which is expressed in a 178-word Santa Oath — “I shall be dedicated to hearing the secret dreams of both children and adults. … I acknowledge that some of the requests I will hear will be difficult and sad” — and in Santas who see St. Nick not as a seasonal gig, but a year-round role.
“I know some of them, and they live Christmas all year,” Lorang says. “You go to their house and they got Christmas stuff everywhere.”
Lorang, by contrast, approached Santa as “as a part in a play.”
“I’m Santa,” he says. “And then afterwards, I’m not.”
Still, Lorang clearly enjoys the part. A recent Tuesday night found him as Santa-in-residence at Stoup Brewing in Ballard, where, trailed by a photographer, Lorang swanned around like a minor celebrity, mingling with patrons and posing for photos with fans.
“He’s our Santa,” says David Wells, who was at Stoup with his wife, Natalie Bachicha-Wells. The couple first encountered Lorang some years back at another brewery and have run into him many times since. “I grew up never believing in Santa Claus,” says Bachicha-Wells. But “if I had seen a Santa like Tim, I don’t think it would have been a problem.”
“This is the perfect kind of a perfect job for me,” says Lorang. “I enjoy the attention. I enjoy talking to people. I mean, there’s not many jobs where you can just walk up to anybody, anywhere and just start talking to them. But as Santa Claus, everybody wants to talk to you and everybody’s happy when they see you.”
Being Santa, Lorang adds, “is a great way to get free drinks.”
Still, the role of Santa can be a burden, even if one inhabits it just a month a year. The accessories aren’t cheap. Lorang spent $600 on his Santa suit (and could easily have spent twice that amount), plus $200 on the black boots, $80 on the belt and another $250 for a custom-made chair that he brings to sit-down events.
The logistics are daunting. Gigs were often scattered across the region, which could mean hours in holiday traffic and, because he refuses to drive in full Santa splendor, a scramble to find a place to change. (He has used a public restroom.)
Before COVID, Lorang often worked every day between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, and rarely had time for Christmas shopping, holiday parties or “all those other things that everybody else is doing at this time of year,” he says.
When COVID essentially canceled Christmas in 2020, Lorang was actually relieved. At nearly 300 pounds at the time (he’s since dropped 30 of them) Lorang worried about his health. More than that, he says, “I actually got to relax.” He and Parker enjoyed the downtime so much they decided to retire the Kringle business and travel in Europe.
When the pandemic pushed those travel plans back to 2022 at the earliest, the Clauses decided to do one final season — but with mixed feelings.
“It was a lot of fun,” says Parker, as she sat at Stoup with her daughter, Zee, while Lorang worked the crowd. (He has four daughters of his own.) As much as Parker had enjoyed teaming up with Lorang and making a lot of the props, she said both of them were “really ready to be done with Santa.”
Still, Lorang is going out on his own terms. On Tuesdays, he plays trivia at a pub in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood and he has taken to showing up in a red sport coat and cap. He sees no reason to stop doing that, even in retirement.
Nor, for all the hard work and missed Christmas activities, does Lorang have many regrets, even during the stress and uncertainty of 2021 — and, maybe, especially during the stress and uncertainty of 2021, when his superb Santa might have added a little cheer to an otherwise bleak year.
“Everybody always asks me if they’re on Santa’s naughty list,” Lorang says. “And I’m, like, Look, after these last two years, I’m giving everybody a little slack.”
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