On this day in 1937 Charles W Howard opened the world’s first Santa Claus training school in Albion, New York. We don’t have a picture of him, but this drawing of an archetypal Santa Claus was drawn by Thomas Nast, who was born on this day in 1840. Charles Howard was already famous for his appearances as Santa in department stores and parades. He first played the part in a school play when he was in the fourth grade. As an adult, he continued playing the part and his reputation grew until he was the most sought after Santa in the area and eventually, the whole of the United States.
Then, in 1937 a local journalist suggested that he should open a Santa Claus school so that he could pass on his methods and philosophies to others. At first he taught from his home, but in the late 1940s he built Christmas Park which had a classroom and dressing room where he could teach. He also had reindeer and a miniature train ride. Children could visit at any time of year, visit Santa and pet the reindeer. At it’s peak, the park welcomed around 80,000 visitors a year.
He taught people everything they needed to know about being a really good Santa. Howard thought Santa should be: “a man of dignity, a man of years and wisdom, a rugged outdoors man who dealt regularly with reindeer, multitudinous gifts and physical labours.” He taught his students child psychology and that they should be sure never to promise anything. If a child wanted an expensive gift then Santa would ‘see what he could do’. If a child who’s father was a soldier, fighting overseas and they just wanted him home for Christmas, then Santa must promise that he and Mrs Santa would pray for him. He taught them all the history of Saint Nicholas and the names of all the reindeer so that they could be prepared to answer any questions and also how to say ‘Merry Christmas’ in sign language. He made sure they knew a bit about all the popular toys that year. Santas took dance lessons so they knew how to appear light on their feet. They learned that their etiquette and personal hygiene must be impeccable. They also learned that the best Santa Claus beards were made from bleached Yak hair. Howard also ran a correspondence course for potential Santas. Among his students were James Cagney and Orson Welles.
Charles Howard was Santa in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade from 1948 until he retired in 1965. He was also consultant on the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street. After he retired his Santa Claus School passed into the hands of Nate and Mary Ida Doan and was re-located to Michigan. It now belongs to Tom Valent and is still going strong. It’s the oldest Santa Claus school in the world.
Not all Santas are such shining examples as graduates of Charles Howard’s Santa Claus School. In 2013, at a farmers market in Poland, a Santa and his helper were taken to hospital after a drunken fall from their sleigh. In 2004 in Wales a Santa charity run ended with a drunken brawl between thirty Santas. The battle was eventually broken up by police armed with batons and CS spray. In 1996 in Leicestershire, a taxi driver had a narrow escape when he picked up two passengers only to find that they were being pursued by 22 angry Santas who smashed the back window of his cab. Thinking about bad Santas has made me remember this, in which my friend Bob plays a very bad Santa indeed.