In a Class of Their Own

Founded by the original Macy’s Day Parade Santa, school days in Midland are shaping a special brand of grad. Photography by Lamar May

Santa Claus SchoolIn Midland, Mich., it begins to feel a lot like Christmas back in October, when the aromatic scent of baking cookies and jolly laughter emanate from a classroom where students are learning the art and science of becoming Santa Claus.

“He errors who thinks Santa enters through the chimney,” observed Charles W. Howard (1896-1966), who first established this niche curriculum — the longest-running program of its kind — in 1937, and served as technical advisor for “Miracle on 34th Street a decade later. “Santa enters through the heart.”

“Typically, half of our attendees are new to the program, while the others are returning students. It’s like a big reunion every year.”
— Holly Valent

Dubbed “the Harvard of Santa Claus schools” by CBS News, the 79-year-old, non-profit Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School based in downtown Midland has been overseen by current deans and husband/wife team Tom and Holly Valent since 1986, and the couple remains rooted to Howard’s mission.

Tom and Holly Valent - Santa“Our focus is finding the heart of Santa, not necessarily how to make a business out of being Santa,” Holly says. “There’s definitely a difference.”

There’s also no shortage of interest. In fact, because the Valents cap enrollment at 120 students to ensure a personal, quality experience, they annually find themselves having to turn people away. “Typically, half of our attendees are new to the program, while the others are returning students,” shares Holly. “It’s like a big reunion every year.”

In 1995, stateside popularity of the festive Midland classes also led the Valents to host the first international World Santa School in Illulisatt, Greenland, which attracted participation from 14 countries.

Pupils at the CWH Santa Claus School explore the historical traditions of Christmas including St. Nick’s launch and legacy and learn how to dress, talk and laugh just like the Big Man himself. There’s even a field trip to Toys R’ Us to be current on the season’s top toys. “But most of all,” notes Tom, “students learn how to listen to children’s dreams.”

Although the average age of pupils at the school is 60, students from 21 to 90 years old have attended. Regardless, the Valents say, aspiring Santas are always young-at-heart. And from doctors to attorneys, coal miners to truck drivers, classmates always gel naturally — including an influx of ladies with a flair for being Mrs. Claus.

“You get to see people at their best,” Holly says. “It’s so much fun.

“And it’s such a happy feeling to send our Santas out, knowing they’ll bring joy to thousands of people. It’s really a snowball effect.”

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Lessons Learned at Santa School

Tom and Holly Valent
Tom and Holly Valent

Three-day sessions ($415 for new students and $365 for returning pupils) begin by snapping on a pair of red suspenders bearing the school’s name and cover a gamut of Kris Kringle subjects including key insights like these:

• History of Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus
• Proper dress, make-up and beard care
• How to “ho-ho-ho” (taught by a professional singer)
• Communicating in sign language
• Elves and reindeer facts
• Simulated sled flight training
• Crafts and woodworking
• Training for radio, TV and other media interviews
• Aerobics and other ways to stay jolly and fit

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