How do you learn to be a Santa Claus? You go to Santa school, of course.
Since 1937, the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School has taught its students to be jolly old souls. This year, about 200 students attended the school in Midland, Michigan, to learn how to be a good Santa or Mrs. Claus, says Tom Valent, who runs the school with his wife, Holly.
Back when Charles Howard founded the school, “there was a need for better Santas,” Valent says. “Some of the Santa characters were apparently pretty rough, smoking and drinking … I believe that was a bigger problem back then.” (Read “Christmas in July—Inside a Santa Summer Camp.”)
That might explain why the classic 1947 Christmas movie Miracle on 34th Street opens with a Santa who’s too drunk to ride in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and is soon replaced by a much more capable Claus. According to Valent, Howard was an advisor on that film.
Today, “bad Santas” aren’t as much of a concern outside of movie theaters or The Killers’ music videos, and most people attend Valent’s school simply because they’re committed to doing a good job. Each year, students learn skills like reindeer handling, simple sign language, and how to take care of a beard, real or fake. (Read “A Stunning Share of Santas Say: Yes, the Beard Is Real.”)
Before becoming the school’s dean in the 1980s, Valent was a student there. And he still loves playing the role of Santa Claus in his community.
“My first love is sitting in that chair and being Santa,” he says. But he decided to take over the school because he saw it as a way to help children by making sure they got a good visit with Santa.
“That Santa visit is so important, because as a child most people don’t forget sitting on Santa’s knee,” he says. “They won’t remember what they asked for, probably—but they’re gonna remember Santa.”