Think back to a time when the holidays were not hiding behind a week of final exams. A time before it was no longer socially “cool” to wait in that spiraling line that wrapped around every aisle of your local mall to get a picture sitting on Santa’s lap and maybe even whisper a few gift requests into his ear. Back when you did not imagine, but truly heard, the reindeer on the snow-covered roof during the night of Christmas Eve and shut your eyes tightly because you knew that Santa would only wiggle his way down the chimney if you were fast asleep.
This time in your life is a lot easier to imagine if you do it while looking at an old picture of yourself sitting on Santa’s lap. This photo may be contained in the gold-embossed frame placed on the mantle all year round, or perhaps in the hand-decorated frame you made yourself, taken out of storage and dusted off as a decoration for the holiday season. Maybe you have never really appreciated it before, keeping the old snapshot in some long-forgotten drawer, never thinking about the significant memories one old photograph can offer.
Now, though, you are a bright college student in the midst of finals and are an additional semester smarter. So really look at that picture again and decide what the key element is, what really rounds out the Christmas spirit portrayed before you. I would have to say it’s the plump, bearded man with the rosy cheeks whose lap you viewed as your own personal golden throne while you moved up that never-ending line at the mall. The man who made Christmas come to life for you every year as a child: Santa Claus!
It is time that we begin to realize the importance of the hundreds of mall Santas who come to work every year to bring to life one of the most significant figures of Christmas. The job of a mall Santa is a lot more complicated than you may think.
Becoming a mall Santa usually begins with The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School located in downtown Midland, Mich. Established in 1937, it is the oldest Santa Claus school in the world and the most highly acclaimed. The school’s mission, according to their website, “is to uphold the traditions and preserve the history of Santa Claus; to provide our students with the necessary resources that allow them to further define and improve their individual presentations of Santa Claus.”
Essentially, the school is a type of Santa Claus boot camp. Aspiring Santa Clauses from all over the world come to the school founded by Howard, who had previously worked as the Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. He had seen some ill-prepared mall Santas in the past and was appalled. He decided to take it upon himself to train mall Santas to be the jolliest and most realistic Saint Nicks possible.
Today, Thomas Valent runs the school along with his wife, who is ironically, yet appropriately, named Holly. Together, they work to create hundreds of ideal Santas every year and they take their job very seriously. According to Valent, in an interview with San Diego News, “I dwell on one thing, and that’s the Santa spirit. Each time a child sits on their lap, this child’s going to remember this visit for the rest of their lives. We as adults remember sitting on Santa’s lap. It’s very important.”
The students are serious, too, paying $360 dollars in tuition for the intense three-day session, most of them returning prior to every holiday season for years after beginning. The commitment of the students shows immediately at the start of class with the opening prayer, “Guide us in our Santa work. Let our Santa spirit in this room grow.”
During school, Santas read essays with titles such as “Regarding Santa Wearing Glasses,” memorize Christmas carols, and learn all the details about the North Pole so that they can answer any question a child may throw at them about Santa’s workshop. They must even know specifics such as Rudolph’s age being 72 years old, since Rudolph first appeared in 1939. They are also taught how to apply the appropriate makeup and deal with hair care. This includes some tricky feats such as how to safely bleach your beard, which the most committed Santas are willing to do for authenticity, and requires breathing through a straw to avoid chemical inhalation. The Santas-in-training are even required to learn holiday-themed phrases in sign language and practice for television and radio interviews.
According to Valent, all of the hard work is well worth it and completely necessary because “children expect perfection. Parents expect miracles. They want their child, who may not believe anymore, to believe again.”
This is a bit trickier in today’s society, considering our failing economy. Santas now have to remember not to promise children’s growing materialistic whims that parents may not be able to fulfill, but instead promote holiday cheer. Fred Honerkamp, a seasoned mall Santa, told the New York Times in an interview, “In the end, Santas have to be sure to never promise anything. It’s hard to watch sometimes because the children are like little barometers, mirrors on what the country has been through.”
But in America’s tough economic state, holiday cheer is just what the doctor should be prescribing, not Barbie mansions and model race cars. Mall Santas work hard to embody the one man that can bring a smile to anybody’s face. Even when Santa’s rosy cheeks are trapped within a mere old photograph that was taken when you were just a little kid years ago, he manages to touch your heart. So take a break from studying for finals, look at that old picture of you and Santa and appreciate that man in the red suit with the long white beard. Recognize that the hard work and commitment of a mall Santa managed to make not only your childhood brighter, but also your present and future, in the form of a beloved memory.