13 Things to Know About The World’s Oldest Santa School

Al Bello/Getty Images
Al Bello/Getty Images

For those aspiring to portray the character of Santa Claus this season, there are dozens of places where they can study the craft. But one workshop tops each Santa's wishlist: The Charles W. Howard Santa School in Midland, Michigan. Here's a look inside one of the world's most selective—and oldest-operating—Santa schools.

1. It was founded by a true Santa pro.

Charles W. Howard first played Santa Claus in a school play when he was in fourth grade. It was a role he never shook: He would go on to appear as Saint Nicholas at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade for nearly two decades, between 1948 and 1965, and worked as a “Santa consultant” for the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street.

2. The school had humble origins.

Santas take notes inside the "Santa House" in Midland, Michigan. Al Bello/Getty Images

Howard loved the spirit of Santa Claus and wanted other Santas working in the country’s department stores to do Kris Kringle proud. “There was a need for better Santas,” Tom Valent, the current Dean of the school, told National Geographic in 2016. “Some of the Santa characters were apparently pretty rough, smoking and drinking.” The first Santa trainings reportedly took place in Howard’s living room but later moved into retrofitted barns.

3. It's been in continuous operation for 81 years.

Today, the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School is the longest continuously-operating Santa school in the world. (This year’s class marked its 81st year.) Class takes place in Midland, Michigan and is headquartered in a jolly-green “Scandinavian-style” Santa house that, according to CNN, is “complete with the smell of peppermint and the sounds of elves hard at work.” The building was designed and constructed by Valent (who, when he's not Santa, is a civil engineer and contractor) and architect Steve Barstow.

4. It's considered the Harvard of Santa schools.

Each year, about 200 Santas (including a handful of Mrs. Clauses) attend class in Midland—but not everybody who applies gets accepted. Co-Dean Holly Valent rejects Santas who don’t seem interested in children or singing. (In other words, Santas who appear to be in it only for the money.) Additionally, she has to place around 40 prospective Santas on a waiting list each year. Thankfully, the workshop in Midland is not the only Santa school under the North Pole: There are training programs in Alberta, Denver, Atlanta, and other cities.

5. The course schedule is jam-packed.

Santas practice their Ho-Ho-HosAl Bello / Getty Images

According to Courtney Reagan and Sabrina Korber at CNBC:

“The education begins on a Wednesday night with an open house at the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School, and then class begins at 8:30 a.m. and goes through 9 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. It’s not all classroom time, though. Valent said there are field trips, train rides and entertainment from professional singers—all in all about 45 hours—crammed into three days.”

6. Child psychology is the name of the game.

The most important aspect of being a good Santa is learning how to genuinely listen to all kinds of children. "[Y]ou have to be on your toes all the time, because you never know what the children are going to ask you," Mary Ida Doan, who plays Mrs. Claus, told WJRT. (Doan would know: She’s a member of the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame.) During the workshop, the Santas get schooled in child psychology and learn handy tricks from experts and each other: How to deal with squirmy children, crying children, children who are afraid of you, and more. The Santas even learn basic sign language. “It's important to be able to spread Christmas cheer to all children," a Santa named Bill told Reuters.

7. Gaining background knowledge means meeting real reindeer.

Since kids are apt to ask Santa anything, it’s best that Santa draws his answers from real experience. What are the reindeer like? To find out, Santa students study reindeer habits and get to meet real reindeer. How are toys made? The Santas spend quality time learning how to make wooden playthings. The Santas also attend lectures about St. Nick’s backstory and the North Pole. “Know who you are,” Valent tells an assembly of Santas, according to CNN. “Know your legend. Know where you came from.”

8. There are field trips!

Santas take notes on the latest toy crazesAl Bello/Getty Images

Part of Santa’s background research involves getting out of the classroom. To study up on the latest gadgets, the Santas take field trips to local toy stores. And to get a feel for what it’s like to ride the Polar Express (they get asked about it more than you think) all of the Santas are bused to the Huckleberry Railroad and ride in a steam locomotive that’s piping Christmas music.

9. They have to practice their “Ho-Ho-Hos” and their “Do-Re-Mis.”

Since each Santa must prepare for radio and TV interviews, much of Santa school focuses on teaching students how to craft an accurate and authentic persona. “For example, they’re advised to create a backstory for their ‘elves,’ pulling names and characteristics from kids and grandkids in their own circles,” Kathleen Lavey reported for the Lansing State Journal. It also means learning how to deliver a hearty but balanced Ho Ho Ho. “You have to do it mild,” Tom Valent explained. “It’s got to be a laugh.” (And to ensure the Santas are really in the Christmas spirit, they’re also taught how to sing with cheer.)

10. There's more dancing involved than you'd imagine.

Santas practice their dance moves.Al Bello/Getty Images

It’s not enough to nail the laugh. Being Santa requires you to be a full-body actor—and that means perfecting the big man’s jolly, bouncing swagger. The school is stuffed with movement lessons. “The school fitness teacher had them dance as if they were wrapping presents, baking cookies and filling stockings to classic Christmas tunes,” Christinne Muschi wrote for Reuters. Santas also learn how to properly ease in and out of a sleigh and learn yoga and breathing exercises to keep limber. (It’s important work: Hoisting kids up and down from your lap for hours takes its toll.) As Tom Valent told CNN, “Santa is a healthy outdoorsman.”

11. They receive financial tips.

At Santa school—which costs $525 for new students—they teach classes on marketing, accounting, and taxes. That's because being a freelance Santa is not cheap. A Santa with a bare chin is advised to buy a custom beard and wig that can cost up to $1800. And while a generic suit costs about $500, a personalized one can run over $2000. Add to that $700 for a pair of authentic boots. And then grooming expenses. Oh, and makeup.

12. Santas get lessons in grooming.

A Santa receives grooming tips. Al Bello/Getty Images

At school, Santas also learn how to curl their mustaches and groom their hair and beards (or wigs) to create a windblown I-just-got-out-of-the-sleigh look. They receive lessons in bleaching their hair to get a snow-white glisten as well as lessons in applying makeup. According to Lavey, teachers show “other Santas how to take the shine off their foreheads with powder, pink up their cheeks with rouge and add startdust to their beards with hairspray that contains glitter.” The big secret to making Santa’s beard smell magical? Peppermint oil.

13. It's probably the world's most heartwarming place.

And that’s not just because cookies seem to always be within reach. It’s estimated than 5000 Santas have come through the workshop since 1986. Many of them return because they love the camaraderie they feel there. “The spirit of giving, the spirit of loving one another and being kind to each other,” a Santa veteran named Joe told WJRT. "The golden rule, it still stands and that's what we try to instill in Santas." As the founder Charles W. Howard once said, “He errs who thinks Santa enters through the chimney. Santa enters through the heart.”

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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22 Creepy Cryptids From Around the World

Belgian painter Pieter Dirkx's interpretation of the Mongolian death worm.
Belgian painter Pieter Dirkx's interpretation of the Mongolian death worm.

According to Merriam-Webster, a cryptid is an animal "that has been claimed to exist but never proven to exist." But as Bigfoot believers and Loch Ness Monster enthusiasts are often quick to point out, it’s pretty difficult to prove that something doesn’t exist. Plus, it’s much more fun to indulge in the idea that giant sea monsters and hairy humanoids are roaming the uncharted corners of the planet.

On this episode of The List Show, Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy is taking viewers across time and space to unearth legends about lesser-known monsters that, again, haven’t been proven to not exist. Take the Mongolian death worm, a lamprey-like nightmare that supposedly lives in the Gobi Desert and radiates a poison so strong that you could die just by standing near it. If you’re an ill-behaved child or a Catholic who scarfs down steak every Friday during Lent, watch out for the Rougarou, a Louisiana-based werewolf that sniffs out those two demographics.

Learn about more fearsome, fascinating cryptids of all kinds in the video below, and subscribe to the Mental Floss YouTube channel for future episodes of The List Show.