Being Santa is a serious business. It requires hard work. And conscientious study.
“It’s a cardinal sin to forget the words to Jingle Bells,” says Holly Valent. “And the names of your reindeers — Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen.”
With husband Tom, Holly Valent is the co-dean of the Charles W. Howard Santa School in Midland, Mich. Founded in 1937, it is the oldest continuously run Santa school in the world.
The school is named after an actor and teacher who worked as a Santa for Macy’s in New York. Howard died in 1966, but the Valents uphold his legacy, preserving the tradition of Father Christmas and the Santa ethic.
Growing up in Salamanca, N.Y., Tom and Holly knew each other as children but never talked until college. Tom decided he wanted to be a Santa when they were expecting their first child.
He remembers loving the Santa that visited his farm in New York State. He enrolled at the Charles W. Howard School, becoming dean in 1987. Holly brought their five children to the classes. They never knew.
“My job was to keep the kids away from the windows when he drove away as Santa for the night shift at the Midland Santa House, which he helped build.”
No matter their sex, Santas must be the embodiments of peace on earth and good will to all men. They must remain jovial at all times.
Says Tom Valent, “Being Santa is a way of life. It’s a state of mind. Not an act … We are trying to produce ambassadors of love and happiness.”
Gender relations, Santa style
There are now several Santa schools preserving and upholding the St. Nicholas tradition and providing the skill set necessary to bring joy memorably into children’s lives. Syllabuses include make up, Ho!-Ho!-Ho! projection and beard hygiene. The Midland school, beside the country courthouse, is the only one offering Mrs. Claus classes.
Holly Valent teaches “Claus and Effect,” and the season’s gender relations. “Our Mrs. Claus classes have evolved into a pretty popular module over the past four years. More and more women want to be Mother Christmas.”
And their roles are changing, “Whereas in the past there were usually one or at the very most two women enrolling in our annual Santa classes and workshops, they were usually training to be elves or passive helpers to their husbands, partners or male friends and Santa wannabees,” observes Holly.
Tom notes an important historical precedent: “At the time of St. Nicholas in the fourth century, bishops could get married. So there is a possibility of there always being a Mrs. Claus from the very beginning of the background story.”
And that relationship is an important part of the Santa Claus experience.“One of the most important roles is showing a respectful and loving relationship between Santa and his wife. We are aware that some children never see that at home and Father Christmas’ loving relationship with Mother Christmas has a powerful influence on children,” says Holly.
Esthetician and skincare specialist Cindy Lofton from Los Angeles is a graduate of the Class of ’17. “It was a totally transformative, immersive and educational experience.”
Kindergarten teacher Camille Parker from Austin agrees, “I have a new skill set.”
The three-day, 140-hour Santa and Mrs. Claus program costs $990 per couple. This includes three to four dinners, some Santa supplies, school manual, bus tour, train ride on a “Polar Express” and lots of cookies and treats. Three hundred attended this year’s course. Seventy have already enrolled for next year (Oct. 11-13).
Says CWH graduate Mother Christmas Carol Baker, a former librarian from Newton Falls, Ohio: “I can’t describe how much the school meant to me. It gave me the opportunity to spend time with those who share the spirit and loving heart of Christmas and to learn how to share that spirit with others.”
For graduates ready to bring their training to the world, Holly notes that “Commercial outfits run anywhere between $100-$800 for dresses. Most of our Mrs. C’s prefer a wig to better disguise themselves … Many Mrs. enjoy a velvet or wool cape trimmed in white fur. Leggings and gloves are a must, especially in the northern areas.”
Students are taught that the red and white costume was only popularized by Coca-Cola in 1931.
Santa enters through the heart
The Valents also lecture on modern reindeer lore, hospital visit techniques, hearty carol singing and storytelling, as well as elf relations.
“We teach methodology. We talk about how to cope with various situations. You can’t afford to lose your temper. You have to keep smiling. When you need to go to the restroom you excuse yourself and say you have to feed the reindeers,” says Tom.
Adds Holly, “Santa is one of the most famous people in the world. A major household name. Mr. and Mrs. Santa are very busy people. As a team they are a powerful force and he should be used to spread positive selfless values. Like the royal couples they share engagements and responsibilities.”
Say Tom, “There’s always something new to learn about Santa. It’s certainly not child’s play. It is an art form that requires years of training. Not just anyone can be Father and Mother Christmas.”
These Santa instructors are at their most passionnate when describing Santa as a force for good.
“The big, big thing is to keep it as magical as you can. Every time a child meets Santa is a very special moment. You can see it in their eyes. He is a miracle-worker. They believe he is someone very special capable of very special things.”
Tom Valent also has a message for the Santa cynics of the world.
“Santa doesn’t tell lies. He tells stories … On their graduation we remind (pupils) of the words of our founder: ‘He errs who thinks Santa enters down the chimney. He enters through the heart.’”