By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Santa is being "sleighed" by the Celtic Tiger this year, with many shopping centers and department stores finding it hard to man their grottoes and Grafton Street not offering a traditional visit for the first time in memory.
The booming economy has led to a Santa scarcity and hit efforts to set up displays of jovial men in red to hand out presents to children in the six-week run up to Christmas.
The shortage has prompted Dublin City Center Business Association chief executive, Tom Coffey, to make a special Santa appeal.
"There are huge difficulties in getting people," Coffey said.
"We have been hearing a lot about it for months now and people have been ringing our office asking do we know anyone who would be suitable.
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"I am sure there are great Santas out there. There must be lots of people who would love it and never thought they would be capable of doing it. If they contact us, we would put them in touch with people.
"You just can’t use anybody as a Santa. You need someone who is believable to children. It is not just a question of getting an old person — you need someone with the right personality who will enter into the spirit of it."
For the first time in living memory, the city’s premier shopping thoroughfare of Grafton Street will not have a traditional Santa operation. "It’s a bit sad, really," Coffey said.
Brown Thomas has decided to forego its traditional Santa because of "positioning in the marketplace." The children’s department has moved across the street into BT2 — what had previously been Switzers.
A spokeswoman said it was not because of the shortage of Santas. They had applications and might still involve a Santa in BT2 but not in the traditional sense of children visiting a grotto and being given presents.
Mary Goulding, who deals with extras for Actors Equity, said a "heap of people" had rung looking for "resting" actors who might be interested in a few weeks work as Santa coming up the Christmas.
"No one wants to do it," Goulding said. "Apparently they don’t pay enough. An extra will get £56 a day for a background non-speaking work and they wouldn’t have to be dealing with hundreds of children.
"Also some of the huts they make up as grottoes are so tiny. There is no air conditioning, so it is very uncomfortable in the costumes.
Richie Walker, who has been main Father Christmas in the Jervis Street center for seven years, started work last Saturday.
"Santas are getting scarcer every year and it is getting very difficult to get anybody as it is hard work," Walker said.
"Last year we resorted to having a Mrs. Claus. We had a Mr. and Mrs. Claus in the grotto and we considered doing it again this year. But it didn’t really work. It just confused the kids.
"We finally got another man to act as back-up this year. We get queues of up to two hours and you have to have a stand-in. Santa can’t be there all the time. When we take a break, we tell the children that Santa is going to feed his reindeer."
Ian Huxtable of Arnotts said it has one Santa who has been with the company for years and was hugely popular.
"We get parents coming in with their children to see him who had themselves visited him when they were children," Huxtable said.
"He’s a gem. He is a retired gentlemen with a real beard and loves children. At this stage he almost believes he is Santa Claus.
"We considered getting another, but we couldn’t find somebody. We have been unsuccessful in the last few years. We did have back-up Santas in the past, but it wasn’t particularly successful as everyone wanted to see our traditional Santa."
Clerys’ Santa has already started work. The company has two full-time staff from previous years and a new part-timer.
Frank Dempsey, who arranges the Tallaght Town Center Father Christmas, has managed to keep some of the same main Santas for eight years and got a student and part-time actor to help out this year.
"We are lucky," Dempsey said. "It isn’t easy. I know of a colleague in the business who is finding it very difficult to get them. There is so much work out there. We used to have a queue a mile long of kids wanting to be elves, but not anymore."