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Michael Rielly

A day at Santa school

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Michael Rielly

A day at Santa school

November 29, 2008


By Kayla Kiley


MIDLAND - Being Santa is not as simple as slapping on a suit and belting some "ho ho hos!"

If you want to be a good Santa, it can take a lot of work.

And if you’re really serious about portraying the Claus’, you can go to school for it. Seriously, there’s one nearby.

Built in 1987 by Tom Valent, the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland is the oldest and longest-running Santa Claus school. Valent, a Santa whose wife’s name is Holly and owns reindeer, said every year, the Santa school offers a three-day course for people to learn the art of portraying the Claus’.

People from all over the country and world come to the school to learn everything from story telling, dealing with TV interviews, answering children’s skeptical questions to working in hospitals and learning sign language.

The courses are held at Santa’s House in Midland, which looks like it unfolded from a pop-up book. The cottage-like building is decked with bells, lights, and as I walked up to it on a sunny October morning, a fat man with a white silky beard towing a toolbox was walking into the house. I could only imagine what Christmas wonders were inside.

I pushed open the wooden door to reveal a magical, fairy tale-like world. Here, the North Pole seems alive: nutcrackers, giant candy canes, toy trains, bulbs galore, wreaths, lighted candles, Christmas trees and wooden elves.

Crammed in tight rows facing the front were the stars of the holiday season: 80 large men with fluffy white beards, all dressed in red.

There were Santas wearing red-and-white-striped socks, Christmas pattern house coats. Some Santas wore hats ranging from the traditional to Russian-style to hats that say "Believe." There were reindeer pins, red bandanas, suspenders and even some Hawaiian Santas wearing Christmas luau appropriate poinsettia shirts.

With pens in hand and books open, the Santas, who looked like way-overgrown school boys, faced Cadillac’s Sally Goggin at the front of the room.

"This is - what I always say - one of the greatest acting gigs," said Sally, who graduated from Alma College with a degree in theater.

Sally was teaching the jolly old men - and a few ladies - how to play the roles of Mr. and Mrs. Claus.

For more than 15 years, Sally has been teaching Santas at the Santa school how to "turn on their inner light" and best use their singing voices.

"When you turn on your inner light, it creates more magic for the kids," she said, with jingle bells in hand.

Sally got everyone on their feet and brought a couple Santas to the front of the room to lead Christmas carols.

"Nobody knows how Santa sings," said Sally, telling the men to be confident because it doesn’t matter whether Santa can carry a tune.


Then a local choreographer showed the Santas how to shake it. Looking much like an aerobics class, the Santas learned dance moves, such as going shopping (fill the sleigh), the water sprinkler (looking for who’s naughty/nice), the monkey (climb the chimney), steer the reindeer, eat the cookies and the belly laugh with rolling hips.

About 20 years ago, Joe Homick of Cadillac started attending the Midland Santa school. He’s one of the many Santas who have returned year after year.

"The school is so enlightening," Homick said. "It enlightened me in life - how wonderful it is, how wonderful kids and families are."

Paul Kudia of Nome, Alasksa is a newcomer to the Santa business, having just started last year. Because there are only 3,200 people in his Alaskan town, last year, Kudia flew to New Jersey for a mall job, where in one day he saw 5,022 people ranging from the ages of 3-days-old to 96-years-old.

Forrest Lowell of Nashua, N.H. said he prefers home visits, because he enjoys the "magic of getting the whole family involved."

"My goal is to get 100 percent participation - adolescents, young, married, stressed-out," Lowell said. "I want everyone on the same page and in the Christmas spirit."


According to some of the Santas, in one season, Santas typically make anywhere from zero (if they donate their services) to $7,000 or $8,000. Homick said in one season, he makes as much to cover the price of one suit - which thanks to his wife’s sewing skills only costs him about $700. Fancy retail suits can cost about $1,500.

A Santa’s spending doesn’t end at his suit - he still has his belt, boots, wig and beard; if he has real hair, he has to shell out money for his bleach job. And if you attend classes at the local Santa school, you’ll spend between $300 to $420.

While anyone can be a Santa, being a good one takes a lot more work, said Homick, noting he has at least one Santa gig per day from now until Christmas Eve.

"I love being Santa," Homick said. "The best part of being a Santa is the reward you get back in your heart from seeing the happiness you bring people. No matter whether you have a real or artificial beard, being Santa comes from the heart."

The passion these Santas have for bringing the spirit of Christmas is apparent in everything from their Christmas clothes, hair and beard to the twinkle in their eyes and their compassionate and jolly manner. After meeting these 80 Santas, if seeing is believing, I can say with certainty that I’m definitely a believer.


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Mrs California Claus

Hey, Santa Reilley - thank you for posting that - it gave me a much better idea of what goes on at the school. I LOVE the phrase "the house looks like it sprung out of a pop up book!!!" Clever writer. Again, thanks. mcc

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Santa Vince

Awesome video Santa Bill! :spinthanks:

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