Cover Story

The School of Yule

By Lauren Wilcox
Sunday, December 24, 2006

PERHAPS THE ONLY THING MORE DISCONCERTING than seeing Santa Claus in the off-season is seeing more than one Santa Claus in the off-season. And yet, one fall day in Midland, Mich., there they were: dozens of men who look just like Santa Claus, ambling up the block in their street clothes, their archetypal forms recognizable at 50 paces -- pillowy white beards, spectacles, ample bellies. They had come, nearly 70 of them, for the 70th session of the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School, to spend three days preparing for the upcoming holiday season. They were here to learn what to wear as Santas and how to act. But mostly they were here to become Santa at the oldest and most distinguished Santa Claus school in the world.

As they gathered, their general Santa-ness began to resolve into variations on a theme. There were Santas in bluejeans and Santas in sweat pants (red). There were Santas in motorcycle boots, Santas in black patent leather Birkenstock clogs, and one Santa in a pair of perforated red Crocs. There were cleanshaven Santas, Santas with real beards so frothy and luxuriant that their faces seemed embedded in drifts of snow, and two or three Santas with their mustache ends waxed into pert curlicues. The effect, when the group had gathered, was a nimbus of wintry cheer on a golden morning on which the leaves had only just begun to fall.

The 70th class milled around the Santa House, as the two-room building is called, greeting old friends and complimenting each other's beards. As Tom Valent, the school's dean, called the class to order, he said a short prayer asking God to guide the group in the "joy and responsibility of being Santa Claus," and quoted school founder Charles Howard: "Being Santa is a privilege, not a job." The Santas murmured in agreement.

One by one, they stood and introduced themselves. There were Santas of every persuasion, from the celebrated to the rank and file. Some were professionally accomplished. "I was the Santa at Bronner's" -- a Christmas megastore in Michigan -- one man said, and the room gave a little gasp of admiration.

"We're professional clowns," said a man who had come with his wife, "and we wanted to take it in another direction."

"I just love Christmas," said another woman, from Ohio, who had come to learn to be Mrs. Claus. "I've had my Christmas tree up since 1989."

Nearly half were returning students. A burly Santa with a thick brown beard said, "I'm an attorney, and I keep coming because this is one of the few places where people say, 'Why don't you grow your hair and beard longer?' " An imposingly wide Santa from Iowa with a tattoo on his forearm said, "I keep coming back because this is the only place I feel small."

One, a man from Stone Mountain, Ga., said: "This is the most terrific experience of my life -- almost like the 20 years I spent in the Marine infantry. It's truly a band of brothers." After the introductions, Valent gave an overview of Santa, the historical figure, and spoke briefly about the role of Santa, in practice. In the United States, he said, "Santa is a jolly character, not a disciplinarian." Also, he said, a good Santa knows his story. "The children are going to have questions, and you need answers. You need to know the reindeers' names, what's going on at the North Pole, all that stuff." He showed slides from a trip he and his wife had taken to Greenland as part of an international Santa get-together sponsored by the Danish government. "That's what the North Pole looks like, kids," he said. "Real icebergs."

Valent, who is an engineer by trade, is also an accomplished craftsman, and he had constructed the building in which they were sitting to look like Santa's workshop, if Santa's workshop were located inside a Bavarian cuckoo clock. It was all blond beams and peaked ceilings, heavily garlanded with artificial pine boughs and lights, and bedecked with ornaments the size of cantaloupes. As Valent addressed the group, he had to raise his voice to be heard above the clicking and whirring of the automated elves and toy trains and enormous candy-cane-striped gears with which he had filled the place. Every 15 minutes, a glockenspiel chimed, and on the hour, two doors would open under the eaves, and two life-size carvings of a boy and a girl, which Valent had modeled after two of his children, would emerge and strike the hour on a giant bell.

At the end of the morning, Valent led a round of singing, something he would do between sessions and when it looked as if the group was in danger of nodding off or had already nodded off. The Santas heaved themselves to their feet, stiff from their positions on the school's wooden benches, and launched into "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" in about six keys.

"Okay," said Valent afterward, looking pained. "That was a little slow." Before the Santas dispersed for lunch, Valent's wife, a sweet-faced woman with curly blond hair who happens to be named Holly, passed around wide, red suspenders to all the new students. "I hope they fit everyone," she said, smiling radiantly. "They didn't have extra-extra-large."

CHARLES W. HOWARD, A FARMER IN ALBION, N.Y., founded his school for Santas in 1937 in an old barn on his property. Howard, who was the Santa in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York in the 1950s, opened the school after a visit to a Lord & Taylor department store in Buffalo, where he had been appalled at the poor grooming and comportment of the Santas working there.

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