WILLIAMSTOWN — Before the Social Security Administration and other sources of revenue come through with their monthly stipends, my checking account sometimes takes a page out of a Raymond Chandler thriller and tries to “crawl under a duck.”

The attempts are, thankfully, few and short-lived: Full cash flow is never interrupted for more than three or four days, and, thanks to overdraft protection, an arithmetical mishap no longer results in an embarrassing spill of red ink.

Still, it was in this uncertain fiscal condition that I spotted a headline in this newspaper last weekend: “Santa’s back in business.”

Associated Press writer Leanne Italie’s story reported that the demand for “Saint Nicks of all stripes” has regained prepandemic levels.

“Santa booker HireSanta.com has logged a 30 percent increase in demand this Christmas season over last year, after losing about 15 percent of its performers due to retirement or death during the pandemic, said founder and head elf Mitch Allen,” Italie wrote.

Another large Santa-booking agency, Cherry Hill Programs, is back up to prepandemic booking numbers for their 1,400 or so Santas working at more than 600 malls and other spots this year, the story reads.

New Santa size

Impersonating St. Nick in the late 1980s, Eagle columnist D.R. Bahlman presides over a children’s Christmas party at the Elks Lodge on Union Street in Pittsfield. The elegant Santa suit, borrowed from the family of an Eagle colleague, was made in the 1950s. The beard is believed to have been made of yak hair.

My time behind the beard

The mall statistic summoned for me a recollection of my brief service, nearly 40 years ago, as the Santa at Colonie Center in New York state, where I was employed as a reporter at the former Troy Times-Record.

In search of a feature for the Sunday paper, I seized on an offer from the shopping center’s management to allow a reporter to fill in for the “regular” Santa for an hour or so, by way of determining what kids wanted for Christmas.

I reported for duty just before noon. I was fitted with a Santa suit (considerably more padding was required in those days) and was wished well by the incumbent Santa, who declared an intention to take a long lunch.

He offered one piece of advice: Go easy on the ho-ho-ho’s. His experience had been that a “right jolly old elf” emitting frequent gusty blasts of forced mirth could frighten already-nervous kids into silence or, worse, into a kicking-and-screaming panic.

The historical Santa

I took this advice, which struck me as common-sensical, particularly in light of St. Nicholas’ quiet patronage of the poor and sick with his inherited wealth. Born circa 280 AD in what is now Turkey, he had become the most popular saint in Europe by the Renaissance. His influence in American popular culture is traced to the 18th century when Dutch settlers in 1773 observed the anniversary of the death of their beloved “Sinter Klaas.”

The 19th century saw what is believed to be the first employment of a Santa model in a retail setting in a shop in Philadelphia. In the 1890s, the Salvation Army put unemployed men to work in Santa garb collecting cash from passersby on street corners. The money was used to fund the charity’s soup kitchens and other free food distribution operations.

The first Santa float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade appeared in 1924, according to History.com.

As I made my saintly way into the early afternoon, it soon became apparent that the incumbent Santa was taking a very long lunch indeed.

He finally showed up a little after 2 p.m., cheeks slightly aglow but otherwise ready to resume the throne. He wondered how my shift had gone. I told him that I would have liked knowing that part of the job was to shift squirming children on my lap to face a camera lens embedded in a large candy cane, but I got the hang of it after a while. The elves handled the business end of photo sales to proud parents, and I got my story.

Back then, I figured I’d done OK, but when I read that AP story the other day, the incident appeared in a new light: A booking agency in Minnesota charges between $100 and $300 per hour for a “mall Santa,” and another industry observer notes that some Santas — usually generous amateurs — mistakenly “low ball” their rates at $50 to $75 per hour.

“Ho ho ...”

D.R. “Dusty” Bahlman may be reached at notesandfootnotes39@gmail.com or 413-441-4278.