Great Escapes

12.26.13

Perfect Your Ho-Ho-Ho’s at the Top Santa-Training School

Being Santa isn’t easy. A Michigan school has been training Mr. and Mrs. Claus’s for over 70 years in the perfect forms of beard-cutting, cookie-eating, and how to answer tough ones.

Your mall Santa may have a specialized degree under his straining, big-buckled belt.

In Michigan, the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School has been certifying Santa Claus imitators for the past 77 years. Each year, dozens of white-bearded, crinkly-eyed men and a handful of Christmas-loving women gather in a gingerbread-esque home called the Santa House in the town of Midland. These soon-to-be Santas and Mrs. Clauses study the same books and traditions that began in 1937 when the school was started by Howard, the original Macy’s Day Parade Santa. “Being Santa is a privilege, not a job,” was his motto. What began for him as a Santa role in a 4th-grade school play turned into a career as Santa personified so well that Howard was in demand across the U.S. But he didn’t get the idea to open a school until a reporter suggested he train others. Today more than 3,000 Santas count themselves as alums of the oldest Santa school in the world.

Each year, between 90 and 115 Santas and Mrs. Clauses partake in the three-day October course, which packs in 40 hours of training on topics such as “Santa Sign Language” and “Santa Flight Lesson.” New toys are studied, conversation topics reviewed, and tips are doled out. A professional singer coaches the trainees in the perfect form of caroling and ho, ho, ho’ing, and the students memorize the names of all nine reindeer pulling the sleigh.

The crash course gets personal, too. Physical appearance is paramount, and a workshop on diet and lifestyle breaks down topics like how to eat a lot of cookies while staying healthy. Beards are especially important; trimming techniques and how to maintain a pure white color are discussed. Good hygiene, students are advised, is important for warding away bad breath and bad smells from that woolen suit.

But it’s not all fun and games. Today’s Santas-to-be are also coached in tax practices, asserting their contractual rights, and labor issues. Santas are advised to keep hands clearly visible at all times, and liability insurance is a must in case a kid falls off their lap. Another toughie is tackling difficult questions or requests, especially pleas from kids for their divorced parents to reconcile.

“You have to let them tell you how they feel,” Thomas Valent, who runs the school with his wife, Holly, told the New York Times. “Then, you simply tell them that you can’t make any promises, but that you will pray for them. I can only promise to pray.” To help, a panel of older kids is brought in to answer questions about their most and least fond Santa memories.

“A workshop on diet and lifestyle breaks down topics like how to eat a lot of cookies while staying healthy.”

The $425 course has even been dubbed “the Harvard of Santa schools,” by former Good Morning America host Bill Weir. Despite the hefty fee, the school’s program has become so popular a waiting list keeps applicants crossing their fingers every year. Successful graduates have gone on to get work with Disney and Coca-Cola. The proprietor, Valent, was a pupil himself in the 1970s and took the school’s reigns in 1987. “When Holly was pregnant with our first baby, I just wanted to become Santa all of a sudden,” he said. He’s since built the Santa House, which also serves as a Christmas workshop, and the couple are proud owners of two reindeer, Comet and Cupid.

In 1995, the school went global, holding class in Greenland and including Santas from Ireland to South Africa. Since then, courses have also been taught in Australia and England. For most students, who take time off, doll out the money, and travel long distances to attend the school, being Santa isn’t a job—it’s a lifestyle choice.

“After a while,” one participant told the Washington Post, “you almost start to believe that you really can fix things, make things better for people. You start to believe that you really are Santa.”