MIDLAND, Michigan — As more than 100 stout and bearded men, all dressed in various shades of red and green, board a train to go rattling through the Michigan countryside for no apparent reason, I turn to Tom Valent and ask, “Why?”
It’s a loaded question. One that has been percolating for days.
Why, in mid-October, would Valent load his entire Santa school onto charter buses and drive them 45 minutes to Huckleberry Railroad, a tourist attraction that is still very obviously in the midst of celebrating Halloween?
Why, the day before, had his student Santas spent hours learning about the legend of Santa Claus — from his birth in Patara to the names of all his elves? Why did Valent have them practice reindeer-handling and sleigh-driving and toy-making?
I mean, come on. Doesn’t Santa Claus use Amazon like the rest of us?
“Do you know the movie ‘The Polar Express’?” Tom asks, answering my question with a question.
Of course. I, too, am a Christmas fanatic. I have a long list of holiday movies I watch religiously every year. The walk-in closet in our condo is no longer a walk-in due to my decoration-hoarding habits. Sometimes in April I listen to “All I Want For Christmas” by Mariah Carey because it makes me smile.
“Polar Express is a great movie, a great story,” Valent continues. “I wanted to give Santa a feeling of what it’s like to ride the Polar Express.”
We board the authentic Baldwin steam locomotive and the conductor blows the whistle. The Santas settle into their seats. Christmas jingles croak from the railroad car’s speakers. Holly, Tom’s wife, mimes grabbing some reins. The rocking train feels a bit like riding in a sleigh, she says.
She’s 100% sincere.
And that, I realize, is the essence of the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School.
The Harvard of Santa schools
The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School is not the only training program for aspiring Santas. There’s the Santa School in Calgary, Alberta; the International University of Santa Claus; and the Professional Santa Claus School in Denver.
But CWH prides itself on being the longest continuously running Santa school in the world.
Charles W. Howard was an actor and lifelong Santa. The school’s website quotes him as saying, “He errs who thinks Santa enters through the chimney. Santa enters through the heart.”
Howard started his Santa school in 1937 in Albion, New York. When he died in 1966, two of his students, Mary Ida Doan and her husband Nate, took it over and moved the school to Michigan. Mary Ida Doan still holds the school’s record for perfect attendance; 2015 was her 57th year.
“It’s like a reunion,” she says. “My October wouldn’t be the same without it.”
Tom and Holly Valent started coming in the 1970s, and they loved the school so much they began managing it when the Doans were ready to retire.
In 1987, Tom worked with architect Steve Barstow to design and build the Santa House in Midland, a city of about 42,000 near Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay. If pressed, Michiganders will hold up a hand (representing the mitten-shaped part of their state) and point to a place of where the thumb connects with the forefinger.
The Santa House, the school’s spiritual home, is a magical place. Stepping inside is like entering Santa’s toy shop, complete with the smell of peppermint and the sounds of elves hard at work. Every year Tom, a contractor by trade and owner of Gerace Construction in Midland, adds a new feature.
These days the school can only use the Santa House for its smaller classes, when newcomers and returning alumni split up. Enrollment has grown to include some 125 Santas and Mrs. Clauses each year.
For three days in October, participants take classes on things like sign language, reindeer-handling and how to apply makeup. They learn to do live television interviews, dance like an elf and give a proper “Ho ho ho!”
It’s basically the Harvard of Santa schools, the Santas say. Having this place on your résumé can get you a job anywhere.
A Santa story
Carol Baker and her Santa Claus were working at a care facility one year in Newton Falls, Ohio. As they approached an elderly woman in a reclining wheelchair, she seemed unresponsive.
But when Santa took her hand in his, a slow smile formed on her face.
Baker was startled when the woman’s adult daughters hugged her and began to cry. “Their mother had shown no response to anything in several years,” Baker says.
Hospice Santas see this happen time and again.
“You have to remember Mom may be 91 physically, but she’s 11 (in her mind),” says Santa Tim Verville, who visits Alzheimer’s patients regularly. “You weren’t around when she was 11, but Santa was. That’s why she remembers him.”
Why Santa Claus?
The receptionist at The H Hotel in Midland directs us to a conference room on the second floor. It looks like every other conference you’ve ever attended, until you notice the elves handing out name tags by the door.
Inside the room, the Santas are introducing themselves one by one. There are men and women here from all over — Tennessee, Wisconsin, Iowa, Florida — and a few from across the border in Ontario, Canada.
About half, Holly says, are newcomers. The rest are alumni who are eager to reunite with old friends. “You learn something new every year,” six-time student Carrie Davis says. “The people that are here have the same love for the holiday that we have.”
Some of the Santas are professionals, hoping to earn some extra money during their retirement, while others are carrying on a family tradition at local churches or schools. A few are here because kids kept staring at them in public.
“I’ve never been Santa, never really thought I would be Santa,” says Ohio resident Jeff Camp, whose bushy growth looks like he stole Santa’s beard right off his face. “Right now I’m kind of wondering what I’ve gotten myself into.”
I’m wondering the same thing.
Not everyone in the room looks like Santa. There are a few without beards, including Tom Valent himself (Holly doesn’t like the way it feels). There’s a lone black Santa. The youngest Santa in the room, Jon Lauderbach, 46, uses a strap-on belly.
There are also bad apples — or bad Santas in this case. The chain-smoking Santa. The one who gets a little too close, despite repeated warnings from Tom to avoid flirting. But the majority seem close to sainthood.
“Why did man create Santa Claus?” Tom asks the class. “Why do we have him?”
The answers, ringing out from various corners of the room, sound like a wish list for the world:
Valent nods his head. “The man stands for all good things,” he says. “And holy peppermint sticks — we’re going to portray that guy!”
After all, being Santa is a big responsibility. For hundreds of years, society has relied on him to create the magic of Christmas. As Santa, you have to make children, the most observant and curious creatures on Earth, believe. You have to make overworked, bill-paying adults pause for a moment and remember what Christmas is really about.
As Santa, you have to somehow land nine reindeer on the roof in the middle of the night, slide down the chimney with the presents, eat the cookies and leave without waking up the family dog.
To do all that, Valent says, you have to be perfect.
A Santa story
On December 23, 2011, Richard W. Hyman, a.k.a. Santa Rick, was approached by a woman holding a sign at the Bass Pro Shop where he worked. The sign said, “Hope for Hailey.”
The woman told Hyman she hoped the sign would garner prayers for the daughter of a couple that attended her church. Hailey had Trisomy 13, a rare genetic disorder, and was not expected to survive.
After his shift, Hyman asked two of his elves to accompany him to the family’s house on the other side of Atlanta. Once there, he passed around some gifts, said a prayer and led the family in singing “Silent Night.”
“I was able to make sure that little Hailey would not pass from this world without knowing the love of Santa Claus,” Hyman says.
Hailey died a few hours after his visit.
“He’s an amazing man to come give us the gift of Christmas at the end of a long season for him, and on a miserable weather night at that,” said Hailey’s mom, Katie Green. “To give our other girls some holiday cheer when Chris and I couldn’t muster up much of a normal Christmas … we’ll never forget that night.”
‘It’s not about money’
It’s dark inside the Gerace Construction warehouse, where a small group of Santas is gathered around a flatbed trailer. A wooden sleigh sits on top, with nine fake, fuzzy, full-size reindeer leading the way. A very enthusiastic Santa pulls on the reins.
“On Dasher, On Dancer, On Prancer, On Vixen!” he crows as the group on the ground applauds his performance. Another Mr. and Mrs. Claus climb up next. With aching knees and stiff hips, it’s tough for some of them to get in and out of the sleigh. I wonder if the real Santa has the same problem.
In another warehouse nearby, more Santas are hard at work learning how to make wooden toy cars. At the door there’s a couple serving coffee and homemade cake doughnuts.
Parked outside is a bright red Chevy Trax LT. The license plate, unsurprisingly, says HOHOHO. But it’s the advertisements on the car that have caught my attention. “Santa & Mrs. Claus For Hire” it says. It’s not unusual to see advertisements like these on the Santas’ vehicles. They carry business cards. They have Twitter handles and Facebook pages. They work everywhere from Walmart to Walt Disney World.
How do you reconcile portraying the true spirit of Christmas with trying to make a living?
We balance it out,” says Peter Boxall Jr. from The Santa Family, an Ontario, Canada business. Boxall and his father Santa Peter work at malls and at parties throughout the season. His sister is Mrs. Claus. His girlfriend is Misty the Elf.
The Santa Family website has a list of services the family provides: Home visits run $100 to $150 Canadian, depending on the length. For as much as $500 Canadian, you can book a “Sneak-a-Peek,” where Santa will come to your home on Christmas Eve and put presents under the tree as your kids watch from afar.
“It’s not about making money,” Boxall insists.
Proper Santa-ing is not cheap: Many of these Santas have spent up to $3,000 on a quality suit, another $1,000 on a fitted beard and $700 on a pair of leather boots. Then there’s costume cleaning and repairs, and the technology used to secretly convey personal information from parents to Santa’s ear.
Holly Valent tries to weed out the CWH school applicants who are only interested in making money. “The ones who are obvious say, ‘I don’t do kids’…’I don’t sing.’ I say, ‘Hmm… are you really Santa Claus?'”
A Santa story
“I once did a slumber party for fifteen 8-year-olds,” says Santa Wayne Phipps from Mendon, Massachusetts. “After they stopped screaming, I gave out gifts. But one girl stayed behind and stared at me.”
Phipps asked the little girl what she wanted for Christmas.
“She replied, ‘I didn’t do a list this year.’ She then told me that her grandpa was very sick, and the family hoped to spend one last Christmas with him.”
Wayne told her that her grandpa was a very lucky man to have a granddaughter like her. Then he told her to put her hand on her heart.
“I told her that anytime she missed her grandpa, to put her hand there. That thumping was him telling her how much he loved her. She stared at me for about 15 seconds and then just wrapped her arms around me.”
Santas on Aisle 5
Heather is waiting as 125 Santas walk into Saginaw’s Toy R Us. She’s there to give them a rundown of the season’s hottest toys. It’s difficult to see her amid a sea of white hair, so Kurtis Koehn, the self-described “Seven-Foot Santa,” holds the toys up as she describes them in detail.
There’s the Meccanoid G15 from Spin Master; the Smart Toy Bear from Fisher Price; the Imaginext Ultra T-Rex. Walking by a toy version of Yoda in the “Star Wars” section, one Mrs. Claus mutters under her breath: “It looks like my first husband.”
Up and down the aisles the Santas-in-training stroll, analyzing Elsa dolls and Nerf guns. Keep in mind this Toys R Us store is open for business as usual. I have to laugh as customers stop to stare.
The Santas know their lines well. “I’m Santa’s helper. But the real Santa is here,” they tell the kids who are brave enough to ask. “Can you find him?”
That’s the $10 million question.
“You never know who the real Santa is,” Peter Boxall says when I call to ask whether or not he believes in Santa Claus. “My dad could be the real Santa.”
Religious adults sometimes say Santa is like God; God is in everyone, and so is Santa. As a journalist, I have to adhere to the philosophy of 19th-century editor Francis Church, who famously wrote: “Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound.”
Even if Santa Claus, the 1,700-year-old elf who allegedly lives at the North Pole, isn’t real, I have faith that his spirit will outlast terrorism and global warming. After all, there are at least 125 men and women among us who want to be just like him.