Strict Standards At 'Harvard Of Santa Schools'

Some may think that working as Santa Claus at the mall is easy, but a shabby red suit and cheap fake beard don't cut it for teachers at the Charles W. Howard Santa School. The school seeks students with outstanding morals and the motivation to make each interaction with children magical. Guest host Tony Cox speaks with owners Tom and Holly Valent.

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TONY COX, HOST:

It's the holidays and that means family, friends, food and of course Santa Claus.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ELF")

FAIZON LOVE: (as Gimbel's manager) OK, people. Tomorrow morning, 10:00 a.m., Santa's coming to town.

WILL FERREL: (as Buddy the Elf) Santa! Oh, my god! Santa here? I know him. I know him.

COX: That of course is Will Ferrell from the 2003 movie "Elf." Millions of American kids feel like they know Santa—his hearty laugh, the fluffy white beard, the twinkle in his eye. Well, parents, if you're with your kids right now you might want to turn down the volume on the radio and here's why: For the past 75 years, the teachers at the Charles W. Howard Santa School in Michigan have made it their mission to make those visits to Santa magical.

And with us to talk about what's been called the 'Harvard of Santa schools' are owners Tom and Holly Valent. Tom and Holly, welcome.

HOLLY VALENT: Hello.

TOM VALENT: Thank you, Tony. Thank you for having us.

COX: I understand that Charles W. Howard, who was the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Santa for nearly 20 years started the school in 1937 because he was really disappointed by the behavior of many Santas at the time. Holly, can you tell us more about why he felt there was a need for a school?

VALENT: Well, Charles W. Howard was a farmer in Albion, New York and he went to Rochester and saw some shabby looking Santas that had a false face. It was made out of papier-mâché and also he smelled alcohol on their breath and he knew that he could find a better way to have a quality Santa so he decided to start the Santa school in 1937.

COX: Now, you didn't coin the term 'Harvard of Santa schools' but your school is considered to be the oldest and the best. What exactly do you teach there?

VALENT: We start out with the history of Santa Claus. We talk about St. Nicholas a little bit, even though it can go back further. The history is deep and thick and it travels throughout every country but in the United States we talk about Clement Moore wrote "The Night Before Christmas" in 1822 and that pretty much set up what Santa is today. With that poem we get reindeer and we get the North Pole and we get the Santa stands for all good things.

COX: Now, a poorly trained mall Santa can completely ruin the experience for kids, of course. Here's a clip from the film "Bad Santa" with Billy Bob Thornton. Take a listen to this scene where Santa is eating at the food court.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BAD SANTA")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Look who's here, Jimmy. It's Santa. Let's tell him what you want for Christmas.

BILLY BOB THORNTON: (as Willie) I'm on my (beep) lunch break, okay!

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Are you insane? Management is going to hear about this.

THORNTON: (as Willie) Is that a threat?

COX: Holly, what do you do with those students who just aren't Santa material? And how do you let them know?

VALENT: Well, I tell them that they have to be almost perfect. They have to have – they have to live the Santa spirit. They have to live the Christmas spirit year round so they have to be really beyond reproach and just be a really good person. Love people, love children. And, you know, I have had a few students call in and say they'd like to be Santa but they don't like children. They only want to do adult parties.

You know, they only want the big paying jobs or something. And I said no, then you're not the right Santa because you really have to have the heart along with the spirit of Christmas.

COX: If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are talking about training the perfect Santa Claus with Tom and Holly Valent. They are the owners of the Charles W. Howard Santa School located in Midland, Michigan.

You know, let's talk about this for just a second. There's a great concern, and we have to be blunt about it, about child abuse. What do you teach Santas to do or not to do when kids are sitting on their laps or hugging them, Tom?

VALENT: Well, we talk to them right up close and we're real firm with the students that come to the school. We've never had a problem. We suggest they keep their hands out in the open. Be a gentleman, Santa. That suit you're wearing, the red stands for a healthy outdoorsman. The white fur stands for purity, a pure man.

COX: I imagine both of you, Tom and Holly, that at times children come to Santa with personal requests that are more challenging than others on occasion. Do any come to mind to you that just really stand out as being very unusual?

VALENT: The tough questions to answer, you know, Will Mom come home for Christmas? Will Dad come back from Afghanistan for Christmas? Those questions, actually answer them with a prayer. I say, You know, I'm really good at toys but what I can do for Mom coming home, on my way home tonight I'm going to say a prayer for your mom. And then when I get home to Mrs. Santa I'll ask her to do the same.

We can't promise the children toys. We teach our Santas not to promise them toys, but when we tell them we're going to give them a prayer, we carry little tiny books in our pocket, we bring the book out, we write their name in the book, and that's the best we can do on the tough ones.

COX: I want to follow that up a little bit more with you, Holly, because I'd like to know what impact does the economic downturn that is currently gripping the nation, what does it have on your Santas and what do you tell them to say and do, especially when kids, like Tom was just saying, ask for things that even Santa can't deliver?

VALENT: Well, we have noticed that the children's list is much smaller than it used to be. So in the past they used to cut out pages of the Sears' catalogue and maybe have 30 things on their list and now they're much more thoughtful. And children are asking for three things and four things. And Santa just tells them if he can maybe only bring one special thing on their list because there's so many children and so many children that don't have a lot, that we want to practice the gift of sharing...

...try to do things more in a non-commercial way instead of gifts. Maybe do something really nice, you know, for your sister or your mother. It seems to work. The children seem – they want to be good. In general, they want to be good and do the right thing. So that seems to work for us.

COX: There's perhaps no better known stereotype of Santa than a jolly old man with white hair, a white beard, and white skin. Now, given the growth of multiculturalism, do you have black and brown, and even women Santas at your school?

VALENT: We don't have women but we have black Santas and Hispanic Santas and the children love that. I think that's a wonderful thing.

COX: Now, I imagine, and I don't want to say the wrong thing, but I'm imagining maybe you don't have any skinny Santas. Or do you? Can you be a Santa and be skinny?

VALENT: Well, hey, you know, there's been a few in the past. I mean, I can't stand up and say I'm one of them, but the pillow part's the easy. It's the heart that we have to teach.

COX: I can't let you go without asking you to say for us – what is that famous phrase from Santa?

VALENT: Oh. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night. Ho ho ho ho ho ho ho.

COX: Tom and Holly Valent are owners of the Charles W. Howard Santa School. Every year they teach a three-day intensive workshop that has come to be known as the Harvard of Santa schools. They joined us from Delta College public radio in Bay City, Michigan. Thank you again very much and Merry Christmas.

VALENT: Merry Christmas.

VALENT: Merry Christmas.

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