MIDLAND, MICHIGAN —
It takes more than a red suit and a white beard to be a good Santa Claus. That’s an important lesson taught at the longest continuously running Santa Claus school in the world.
Charlie W. Howard, who was the featured Santa Claus in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for 17 years, started the school in 1937.
Tom Valent, now the school’s dean, says there was a great need for good Santas at that time.
“Santas did not portray the image that we want,” Valent said. “Santa Claus stands for all good things and some of the gentlemen that were portraying that image were not up to par then.”
Santa always learning
Today’s Santas really do not have that problem. They attend the three-day workshop at the C.W. Howard Santa Claus School for a variety of other reasons, such as learning Santa sign language, facts about reindeer and how to do proper dress and makeup. They also become familiar with the newest wish list toys, gain interview experience for radio and TV and get tips for managing their business taxes.
Robert Davis, who has played Santa for 30 years, has attended the school several times.
“No matter how good you are at whatever you choose to do, you can always be better,” he said. “Not only does the school teach you so much, but when you interact with 250 people who love the same thing you do, you learn something new every year.”
Although Howard opened the school in his home town of Albion, New York, today, the Santas’ headquarters is the Santa House, which sits near the center of town in Midland, Michigan.
Valent designed the gingerbread style house, which features a traditional cuckoo clock with animated dancers, in 1986. He also hand-carved the hundreds of displays inside, from animated elves painting toys and playing a piano, to a candy conveyor line, and a giant Santa chair.
Thousands of Santa’s cousins
No one knows exactly how many Santas have graduated from the school, but conservative estimates place the number around 15,000.
During that time, there have been students from North America, Europe, Africa, and Australia. This year the school has Santas from all 50 states, and also 20 from Canada, three from Denmark, one from New Zealand, and one from Norway.
The Santas never claim to be the one and only real Santa, but rather “the spirit of Christmas.” At the school’s opening night Santa Walk, they tell visiting children they are the “cousins of Santa.”
Robert Davis says they also never promise anything, instead saying they will “try their best.”
“Anywhere I go, I try to make my contact and exchange with that child the very best that it can be because that could be that child’s best five minutes of the year,” he said.
After all, as founder Charles W. Howard was fond of saying, “He errs who thinks Santa enters through the chimney. Santa enters through the heart.”