In a cozy cottage nestled in Midland, Michigan, between 25,000-30,000 people come each Christmas season to visit Santa and Mrs. Claus at the—appropriately named—Santa House. The structure, reminiscent of a life-size gingerbread house painted in merry colors with a steep, slanted roof (perfect for reindeer takeoffs), draws first-time visitors as well as multi-generational families who want to immerse themselves in the holiday spirit.
However, just a couple of months before the doors open to Santa House and usher in the Christmas spirit, a different crowd of visitors gathers around for three days to attend something equally magical— Santa School.
The original Santa School started in 1937 outside of Albion, New York. It was owned by Charles W. Howard, a farmer who just happened to moonlight as Santa Claus in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade from 1948-1965. He wanted to teach future Santas about bringing the holiday spirit to children and adults alike.
In the 1960s, the school was taken over by Nate Done, who eventually moved to Bay City, Michigan, where the program started with just two students that first year. One of those first students was Tom Valent. Twenty years later, it would be Tom who passed on the traditions he learned that weekend to entirely new generations of Santas.
It was 1986 when Tom and his wife Holly (yes, that’s her given name!) took over Santa School, keeping the tradition alive and passing on those Kris Kringle-esque lessons. Shortly afterward, they moved to Midland, where they have continued to host would-be Santas every year since.
“We both really believe in the spirit and magic of Christmas,” said Holly. “But for Tom, it has been a calling. He has always understood that the time you spend with a child as Santa will stay with them their whole lives.”
It’s this very philosophy the Valents impart to their nearly 300 Santa students in the three-day curriculum. Teachers, doctors, farmers, actors, coal miners, and truck drivers, amongst others, have come from all over, including 46 states and three countries. Their backgrounds may be different, but their mission is the same—to embody the heart of Santa.
“Our job is helping our students to be well-rounded Santas. We want them to feel confident, to feel like Santa,” said Holly. “Graduation can be pretty emotional for everyone. This experience is transformational.”
For students, the experience involves everything from studying the history of Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus to finding their own signature suits. They have help from professionals who teach makeup, wig, and beard (for those without real ones) application. There is plenty of attention placed on singing and presentation skills, as well as a Santa Sign Language class to help make every child feel included.
“It’s a full weekend filled with different sessions, including making toys in Santa’s workshop,” said Holly. “But also keeping everyone up to date on the latest toys and gadgets on kids’ wish lists.”
Between the lessons, the workshops, the off-site trips, and plenty of cookies and milk, these Santas are not only finding their own holiday cheer, but storing up enough to bring the magic of the season to anyone who visits with them.
“It’s not like any other business I can think of,” said Holly. “We are literally fueled by Christmas spirit, and it’s been our privilege to share that with the Santas, as well as the community, for all these years.”