In 1931, millions of Americans were introduced to the modern image of Santa Claus through Coca-Cola ads featuring a bearded man with rosy cheeks wearing a red suit with white trims. Santa Claus quickly began to appear across the country, often in department stores to attract parents and children and promote sales. Random employees were frequently put on duty.
In 1937, a Rochester, NY department store Santa Claus and full-time dairy farmer named Charles W. Howard had surveyed the Christmas landscape and decided that someone needed to improve Santa’s stock. So began another seasonal tradition: an annual school where aspirants could learn the art of personifying Christmas. Average Santas lacked quality costumes, had no training in dealing with restless or fearful children, and were unfamiliar with topics such as proper reindeer care (kids often ask about Rudolph).
Howard, who spent 18 years as the world’s most visible Santa Claus on Macy’s climaxing Thanksgiving parade float, taught such things. He turned his school over to a colleague in central Michigan before his death in 1966 – so the 84th annual session of Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School began over three days in October in Midland, Michigan. , about 125 miles northwest of Detroit.
“We are here to build the spirit of Santa Claus in your hearts,” promised Tom Valent, the 71-year-old, clean-shaven and relatively balanced school principal who has appeared locally as Santa Claus for 47 years. He was speaking to 200 Santas and Mothers Claus across the country in a community center auditorium that (coincidentally, Valent insists) has bright green seats and a ruby red carpet.
Students relax on a trip to Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, a retail store in Frankenmuth, Michigan. The school of Santa Claus Charles W. Howard began in 1937. Thomas Cortemeglia of Nashville gets into the holiday spirit at Santa’s School. Robert Auer and Debbie Auer from Pelham, Ala. relax for the night. This is the first year that husband and wife have attended school together. Robert has been playing the role of Santa Claus for 20 years and Debbie started her role of Mrs. Claus five years ago. Students, left to right, Jeff Wertz de Toledo; Ken Matuszak of Bowling Green, Ohio; and Randy Wheelock from Traverse City, Michigan, visit with a reindeer at the Santa House in Midland. Carl Raysin of Grand Blanc, Michigan, Center, and other Santas are learning sign language.
Valent and his wife, Holly – yes, Holly – took over his second operator’s school in 1987. “It has always worked, and I have every confidence in the world that it will continue to work,” he said. he declares. “I’m not going to tell you that I’m the greatest Santa Claus. I’m not. I love being Santa Claus.
For people who aren’t in Santa’s world, the “craft” itself would seem simple: Now put on Santa’s clothes (plus a big costume if needed) and dash into a room with a bag of toys on. your shoulder or sit on a throne yelling “ho, ho, ho” and ask the kids if they’ve been good all year. Still, the attendees – who paid $ 500 in tuition per person – soak up a litany of fun facts about the legend of St. Nicholas as well as pro tips on marketing, fitness, costumes. and tactics for answering the tough questions put to them by curious young people and disruptive adults.
The key is to answer inquiries with plausible lies that don’t ruin the Santa Claus myth. “I’m a professional liar,” said Michael Beurer, who was scheduled to appear as Santa Claus on the December 4 Christmas parade in Pontiac, Michigan, with a chuckle. “Sometimes a kid tests me by asking if I know his address to deliver his gifts, and what I do is start to decipher the coordinates – 25 degrees north, 44 degrees west, whatever – and they say, “No, I live at this address,” and I say, “But I’m giving you the coordinates from the air. “
The breadth of the program, taught by volunteer staff, including the Valent, is impressive. (The tuition, says Tom Valent, pays for facilities, catering, and transportation for field trips throughout the weekend.) A singing teacher explained how to maintain a hoarse voice with hot pepper tea of Cayenne as the peak season progresses. A pair of nurses stopped by to talk about staying healthy through exercise (“What do you call a Santa Claus who doesn’t move? Santa Pause!”) And nutrition. A marketing guru appeared to generate the most interest when he suggested that Santas persuade stores to set up thrones for photo ops in the parking lot, as families cautious of the pandemic are not crowding into them. malls like they used to.
Tom Valent, dean of Santa’s school. “We are here to create the spirit of Santa Claus in your hearts,” he told the 200 Santa Claus and Mama Claus in the class. A selection of Mrs. Claus wigs. Students, from left, Edward Piane of Lockport, Ill. ; Tommy Casey from Searcy, Ark. ; and Walter Lorenz from Brighton, Michigan, during dance lessons. Mike Connor from Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Ed Hatz of Lakewood, California. Holly Valent, left, and Tom Valent chat with schoolchildren at Santa’s School.
Santa Claus virtual tours, which are now so popular that speakers mentioned websites like Hire Santa, Santa’s Club, JingleRing, and Talk to Santa, are obviously not such a problem. Beurer, who co-hosted a session on this business model, said he made 350 home visits through Zoom last year. Often times, he chats with parents ahead of time to learn details about the kids, and then can impress them in ways that he might not be able to in a public appearance.
“In one case the big sister was starting to disbelieve in Santa Claus,” Beurer said, “so the parents gave me information about her and I said, ‘Olivia, how did you like the products? cosmetics I brought you last year for Christmas? ‘ And she looked so surprised, like, wait a minute, this guy might be the real one.
Most Santa Claus and Mama Claus say they’re not here for the money, but a few students are struck not only by the holiday spirit, but also by the – unconfirmed – rumors that some fellow students class collect six-figure sums each season. Michael Godfrey of Pahoa, Hawaii, the youngest participant at 38, said his mother often told him he looked like Santa Claus (he’s stocky but neither silver-haired nor particularly bearded) and that he should try. “I did all kinds of things: computer engineering, delivery driver, taxi driver, always odd jobs that never really got anywhere,” Godfrey told me. “There is a lot of potential in being a professional Santa Claus. A newbie Santa can make $ 25 to $ 75 an hour depending on where he works. (Valent says he doesn’t know anyone who gets rich by being Santa Claus.)
As with any meeting of like-minded amateurs, camaraderie is as important as what’s on the official agenda. Local Santas can often be hostile to each other, said Robert Auer of Pelham, Ala., “Because you take their business away from them or they take their business away from you.” At Santa’s School in Midland, everyone – teachers and students – seemed willing to share advice. “I’m telling you,” he said, “there was no bad Santa in the group.”
Douglas Billings of Lexington, Tennessee, outside the Santa House. The hair of a Santa Claus. Ken Matuszak learns to pilot reindeer. Charles and Eileen Przybylo of Rockwood, Michigan, walk to the cars of the Polar Express train in Midland. Tom Valent took over the school from his second operator in 1987. “It has always worked, and I have every confidence in the world that it will continue to work,” he says. “I’m not going to tell you that I’m the greatest Santa Claus. I’m not. I love being Santa Claus.
Auer admitted he was nervous chatting with other Santa students, many of whom attend the program every year and know each other. Then Holly Valent, resplendent in a crinkled red velvet gown adorned with fluffy white cuffs and a matching shawl, took the stage as Mrs. Claus and asked to be serenaded. Some 200 people obediently stood and erupted in unison in a rendition of “Jingle Bells” so joyful and fair it sounded like a recording. But, no, like most beards and bellies long as bowls of jelly, it was real. “I looked around this room and didn’t see anyone who wasn’t singing,” Auer said. “And it was really pure joy.” In other words, the true spirit of Christmas.
Steve Friess is a writer in Detroit.