Photos: Inside the world’s oldest Santa school

by December 21, 2014 5:00AM ET

Photographer Ian Bates shows just what it’s like to be in a room with 130 Kris Kringles

Santa Clauses wait to meet reindeer at the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, Michigan, Oct. 17, 2014.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America

Classes at the world’s oldest Santa Claus school are not exactly ordinary academic fare.

They can cover obvious topics such as the history of St. Nicholas and the latest must-have children’s toys. Or they can be on sensitive subjects like avoiding improperly touching children and negotiating contracts. Or they can be bluntly practical, on things such as maintaining good breath and beard hygiene and delivering a belly-sourced ho-ho-ho that doesn’t frighten small children.

And when Santas need a study break or energy boost, they don’t head to Starbucks or the water cooler but stand for a spirited chorus of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and reach for a handful of sugar cookies.

Photographer Ian Bates traveled to Midland, Michigan, in mid-October for the annual Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School, a three-day course for Kris Kringle newbies and veterans alike. The program was established in an old barn in Albion, New York, in 1937 by Charles W. Howard, an upstate farmer who doubled as Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in the 1950s.

“The whole experience was totally surreal,” said Bates. “The feeling of having 130 Santa Clauses singing after every single thing that happen[s].”

The school is now run by its 64-year-old dean, Tom Valent, and his aptly named wife, Holly, 62. Tom Valent is the president of Gerace Construction, which builds dams, bridges and buildings across the U.S. Forty years ago he took lessons from a master wood carver from Germany and uses those skills today in his free time to create animated wooden elves, a full-size Santa grandfather clock and a sleigh pulled by nine life-size reindeer, which the Valents had a local teddy bear maker cover in fur. They keep two real reindeer in their backyard.

While Christmas lovers come in all shapes and sizes, those called to be Santa tend toward wide waistlines and sturdy builds, many with snowy white hair and a beard to match. Others — the traditionally bearded, as they like to be called — don pricey artificial wigs and whiskers. But even those who require a little padding under the belt or bleach in the beard can’t fake the Christmas spirit.

“They definitely all have a huge inner child and are really goofy and mess with each other,” Bates observed.

Leon McBryde after giving the other Santas a class on techniques and props for home visits, Oct. 18, 2014.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America

During a series of light stretches — meant to reinforce the need for Santas to stay healthy and take breaks from hours-long stints in the Santa chair — several of the students pretended they couldn’t reach their toes, grunting and falling over on the floor. When a field trip to Toys R Us came to an end, Santa Randy Schneider refused to get off the mechanical Dumbo ride in front of the store, grinning and waving like an overgrown tot.

The Santas say they refuse to grow up, and that’s what makes them believable: They never stopped believing in what Santa Claus can do.

“I decided one day to go to Miami to portray the character, not really wanting to be Santa, but once I did it the first time, there was an inner peace that something told me, ‘Yeah, this is what you should be doing,’” said Santa Leon McBryde, a professional clown from Buchanan, Virginia. “So I think Santa picks you. You don't pick Santa. And the ones that he picks are incredible characters.”

“I don’t do this for me. I want to be a positive role model for the kids. Not all of them have that anymore,” said Santa Jerry Owens, a Santa school veteran.

Owens, 63, used to work in the engineering department at a veterans’ hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. This is his 25th year portraying Santa Claus. A call to his home in New Albany, Indiana, summons Kermit the Frog singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” as his ringtone.

Owens said the hardest thing about being Santa is sitting with the children who, like most other kids, want the Elsa and Anna dolls from the Disney movie “Frozen,” the remote-control trucks and Lego sets, the Xboxes, Wiis, iPhones, iPads and “Minecraft” games but aren’t going to get any of them.

“I know their parents can’t afford it and the reason they’re seeing me is they can’t afford to go to the mall and pay for pictures the mall is going to charge them,” said Owens, who portrays Santa at schools, nursing homes and local businesses. He said he never promises gifts but tells children that, while his workshop isn’t like Walmart or Kmart, he’ll do his best.

Stories like that get passed around year after year during meals and downtime at Santa school. Or tips on how to answer a child who asks Santa for the return of a deceased parent.

“You have a child here who is looking up to the one man that can answer everything, that can fly around the world in one night and make reindeer fly. ‘Surely this man can bring back my dad or my mother,’” Owens said. “And yet we can’t.”

Owens sees Santa school as an annual homecoming — one that ends each year on a bittersweet note, knowing a handful of his retired Santa buddies won’t live till the next October.

But with eight years of Santa school under his thick black belt, he says he’ll keep going as long as he’s physically and financially able.

“It’s a special time, and we get to be in a world where everybody understands us,” he said.

Santas Paul Gallaci, left, and David Becherer sing Christmas carols, Oct. 16, 2014.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America
Reindeer at the Santa school.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America
Santa Jerry Julian doing yoga on an otherwise underused trampoline.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America
Santa Randy Schneider practices his breathing at a voice lesson.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America
Santa Fred Osther of Oslo, Norway, walks through a Toys R Us, where the Santas were introduced to the most popular toys of the season.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America
Santa Stephen Leaf on a children’s bicycle at the store.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America
Santa Gary Barnes with a stuffed “Frozen” snowman.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America
Santa Randy Schneider takes a Dumbo ride in the Toys R Us.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America
A Santa waits on a bus after a group dinner at the Bavarian Inn restaurant in Frankenmuth, Michigan, before heading back to Santa school.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America
Santa Jerry Owens prepares his beard for the day.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America
Santas wait their turn for flight lessons on a sleigh at the Gerace Construction warehouse.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America
Santas and Mrs. Clauses build wooden games during a toy-making class at the Gerace Construction warehouse.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America
Even Santas aren’t immune to the pull of posing for Instagram and Facebook posts.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America