Ho Ho, Oh No! Germany Has A Santa Shortage | WGLT

Ho Ho, Oh No! Germany Has A Santa Shortage

Dec 22, 2019
Originally published on December 23, 2019 9:14 am

At a workshop in Berlin, Santa arrives to train a handful of apprentices how to act like him. "From out of the forest I appear, to proclaim that Christmastime is here!" he exclaims.

Santa — real name Tim Zander — wears a long, red robe and matching hat, and he pulls on his beard slowly as he recites a traditional poem. He then segues into pointers on how to channel one's inner Santa.

"A really epic arrival is good, just like I just performed," he tells a roomful of recruits, "complete with the bells, the ho-ho-ho, and a heavy knock on the door. But not so hard that you break it." The applicants, one wearing a full Santa suit, sit around a conference table, taking notes.

Throughout Europe and North America, throngs of Santa impersonators like Zander have been busy preparing children for Christmas. But in Germany, the number of people willing to play Santa Claus has dropped precipitously, after a student union that traditionally supplied candidates stopped doing so last year out of a lack of interest among students. It was a code-red Santa emergency.

Petra Henkert, manager of a Berlin Santa Claus agency, says the number of Santas she employs in Berlin has dropped precipitously in the past two years.
Rob Schmitz / NPR

Many Santa impersonators don't do it for money — they do it in the spirit of Christmas. In Germany, Santas are employed through agencies. During last year's crisis, Berlin's Santa agencies convened, and like members of OPEC, they set a pricing scheme so they could all benefit equally. They called it "Santa's Honor Code." But this hasn't helped the Santa shortage.

Local tradition dictates that Dec. 24 is a day when families arrange for Santa to make home visits. Until a few years ago, Petra Henkert, an e-learning business employee who has run a Berlin Santa agency on the side for the past 20 years, oversaw more than 500 Santas visiting 6,000 families. Now, 200 are trying to meet the needs of an estimated 8,000 families.

In the past, she says, the Santas under her watch didn't ask for much. "But now, supply and demand regulate the market, and that's a very dangerous development," she says. "One agency has chosen to keep prices at 45 euros per Santa visit, but I've had to go up to 66. Others are asking for up to 120 euros."

That's more than $130. But amid a booming Berlin economy, "Getting paid for working on Christmas Eve is no longer attractive," says Henkert of her typically young Santa force. "They'd rather go to their families, because they can make money elsewhere."

Frederik Tholey, 32, is the founder of Weihnachtsmann2Go (Santa2Go), the agency that employs Tim Zander. Tholey says his Santa numbers are down this year, too, even though the job requirements aren't complicated.

An applicant performs in a test-run as Santa at a workspace rented by Tholey's agency in Berlin, Germany.
Rob Schmitz / NPR

"Basically, the entrance barriers are not so high," he says of his applicants. "I mean, you need a proper costume. You need to be good with children."

In return for a modest service fee, his agency connects families with Santas who live in the same vicinity by using an algorithm that plans Santas' stops so they're never more than 20 minutes away from their next appointment. The website appears to be a cross between Uber and a Santa dating site.

At a training workshop run by Weihnachtsmann2Go (Santa2Go), the agency provides costumes, bells and beards to aspiring Santas.
Rob Schmitz / NPR

Tholey shows his Santa trainees a PowerPoint presentation filled with advice. "Always be prepared for the tough questions from your clientele," he tells them. "'Where are the reindeer? Is your beard real?' And in the worst-case scenario, just avoid the question altogether and sing a song instead."

As other applicants observe, Tholey helps dress a 62-year-old would-be Santa named Berndt in a Santa outfit and asks him to do a test-run.

"Ho ho ho," Berndt mumbles as he enters the room from outside.

He then launches into "Knecht Ruprecht" by Theodor Storm, the traditional poem Santa recites in Germany, but stumbles over one of the lines. He pauses for a second and then suggests they forget the poem and move on to "O, Christmas Tree."

It's a smooth, confident transition — one the jolly one himself might make. By the end of training, Berndt's hired — one of a vanishing elite spreading Christmas cheer through Berlin.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So while Santa and his elf workforce are preparing for Christmas, others will impersonate him at malls, public squares, even on home visits. But in Berlin, there is a Santa shortage. Here's NPR's Rob Schmitz.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Most of the people involved in the Santa business are not doing it for money. They're like Petra Hankert, a Santa agent whose day job is an assistant at an e-learning business. Hankert is busy preparing for Christmas Eve. That's when thousands of families, in a local tradition, expect Santa to pay a house call. And that's where Hankert comes in. Amidst the holiday rush, she meets me on her lunch break at a cafe near her office.

PETRA HANKERT: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: Hankert says that up until a few years ago, the 500 or so Santas under her watch didn't ask for much. Like her, they did it because they were filled with Christmas spirit.

HANKERT: (Through interpreter) But now supply and demand regulate the market, and that's a very dangerous development. One agency has chosen to keep prices at 45 euros per Santa visit, but I've had to go up to 66. Others are asking for up to 120 euros.

SCHMITZ: That's more than $130. Berlin's economy has been booming, and the spirit of capitalism is now fueling the local Santa market. What's worse, the number of people willing to play Santa dropped precipitously when a student union that traditionally supplied candidates stopped doing so last year. Hankert went from 500 Santas visiting 6,000 families to what are now 200 trying to meet the needs of 8,000. It was a code red Santa emergency.

Berlin's Santa agencies convened, and like members of OPEC, they set up pricing schemes so they could all benefit equally. They called it Santa's honor code. But this has not helped the Santa shortage.

TIM ZANDER: Ho, ho, ho. (Speaking German).

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

SCHMITZ: At a workshop in the Neukolln neighborhood of Berlin, Santa arrives to train a handful of apprentices how to act like him.

ZANDER: (Through interpreter) From out of the forest I appear, to proclaim that Christmastime is here.

SCHMITZ: Santa - real name Tim Zander - stands in the doorway ringing a bell and holding a golden book, and he does not break character when giving pointers on how to channel your inner Santa.

ZANDER: (Through interpreter) A really epic arrival is good, just like the one I performed - complete with the bells, the ho-ho-hos and a heavy knock on the door.

SCHMITZ: A handful of Santa's applicants, one wearing a full Santa suit, sit around a conference table taking notes. This workshop is run by the agency Santas2Go, which, as its name implies, is trying to streamline Berlin's Santa industry. In return for a modest service fee, the agency connects families with Santas who live in the same neighborhood. Their website looks like a combination of Uber and a sort of Santa dating site. Its founder, 32-year-old Frederik Tholey shows a PowerPoint filled with advice for his trainees.

FREDERIK THOLEY: (Through interpreter) Always be prepared for the tough questions from your clientele. Where are the reindeer? Is your beard real? And in the worst-case scenario, just avoid the question altogether and sing a song instead.

SCHMITZ: Tholey says his Santa numbers are down this year, too.

THOLEY: Basically, the entrance barriers, they are not so high. I mean, you need a proper costume. You need to be OK with children

SCHMITZ: A 62-year-old Santa applicant named Berndt seems to tick all the boxes once the organizers dress him in a Santa outfit and ask him to do a test run.

BERNDT: Ho-ho-ho. (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: He enters reciting the traditional poem Santa recites in Germany, but he forgets one of the lines. He stumbles for a second but quickly suggests they forget the poem and move on to "Oh, Christmas Tree."

BERNDT: (Speaking German).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking German).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking German).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in German).

SCHMITZ: It's a smooth, confident transition, one the jolly one himself would make. And by the end of training, Berndt's hired, now part of a vanishing elite spreading Christmas cheer through Berlin.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF VINCE GUARALDI TRIO'S "O TANNENBAUM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.