Charles W. Howard was a farmer that couldn’t contain his displeasure with seeing Santas in frayed suits, cheap beards, and who also had inadequate knowledge of reindeer. So in 1937, he determined to improve the problems by starting a “Santa School”. History reports the first class consisted of just three men. Eventually, however, Howard would create a Christmas-themed park with several barns, a train, and some reindeer that children from miles around would visit, including Tom Valent, who now runs the school. I should mention, Charles Howard was the featured Santa Claus in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for almost 20. years in the mid-1940s to mid-1960s.
Interestingly, the 1948 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade launched Howard into the public spotlight, as not only was it the first time the parade was televised in color nationally but it would begin a long-term relationship between Howard and the retailer. It turns out there was an opening for Santa at the store and Macy’s asked Howard to take the job as well as asking him to train the other Santa’s they wanted as part of their parade. Howard filled the role every season until 1965 and would not only play Santa in New York but also in my hometown of Kansas City.
For those aspiring to portray the character of Santa Claus each year, there are dozens of places where you could study the craft. But the Charles W. Howard Santa School in Midland, Michigan tops the list for sure so I thought I’d share an insider’s look into the world’s most selective and oldest Santa school in the country, where an eager student body of new and returning students attend.
It’s estimated that more than 5000 Santas have come through the workshop since 1986 and I’m told that many of them return because they love the camaraderie. Santa veteran named Joe shares that it’s the spirit of giving, of loving one another, and being kind to each other that makes the annual trek to Michigan well worth it. He adds, the golden rule still stands and that’s what we try to instill in our Santas, as the founder Charles W. Howard once said, “He errs who thinks Santa enters through the chimney. Santa enters through the heart.” You can take a peek inside the school HERE. (Source: mentalfloss, dailynewsonline, santaclausschool)
Not Everybody Gets In – Currently, about 300 Santas, including a handful of Mrs. Clauses, attend class in Midland, but not everybody who applies gets accepted. Co-Dean Holly Valent has no problem rejecting Santas who don’t seem interested in children or singing, meaning they only appear to be in it only for the money. Additionally, she has to place around 40 prospective Santas on a waiting list each year.
Child Psychology Is the Name of the Game – As you can imagine, the most important aspect of being a good Santa is learning how to genuinely listen to all kinds of children. Mary Ida Doan, who plays Mrs. Claus, shares that Santa has to be on his toes all the time because he never knows what the children are going to ask. During the workshop, the Santas get schooled in child psychology and learn handy tricks from experts and each other to deal with the not so infrequent squirmy and or crying child, kids who might not know they are afraid of Santa, and more. I’m told, the Santas even learn basic sign language.
You Have to Know Santa’s Culture – Since kids are apt to ask Santa anything, it’s best that Santa draws his answers from real experience, meaning trainees will meet real reindeer and study their habits, spend time learning how to make wooden toys and learning about the North Pole. To put the future Santas in the right frame of mind, class takes place in a jolly-green “Scandinavian-style” Santa house that’s complete with the smell of peppermint and the sounds of elves hard at work.
Prepping for Public Appearance – Part of playing Santa includes preparing for radio and TV interviews, so much of Santa’s school focuses on teaching students how to craft an accurate and authentic persona. In fact, they’re advised to create a backstory for their ‘elves,’ pulling names and characteristics from kids and grandkids in their own circles. It also means learning how to deliver a hearty but balanced Ho Ho Ho, that is a balance between mild while also being a laugh, and to ensure the Santas are really in the Christmas spirit, they’re also taught how to sing with cheer.
Santa Needs Some Fiscal Training As Well – Santa School isn’t cheap, with tuition costing over $500 alone. I’m told the classes include instructions on marketing, accounting, and taxes. That’s because the costs of being a freelance Santa can add up when you consider that a trainee with a bare chin needs to buy a custom beard and wig that can cost up to $1,800. And while a generic suit costs about $500, a personalized one can run over $2,000. Add to that $700 for a pair of authentic boots, and then grooming expenses all add up to ensure you’d better be serious about impersonating Old St. Nick.