Learning to ho ho ho

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 December, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 December, 2005, 12:00am

Christmas is a time for giving and Tom Valent gives it to me straight. 'Have you thought of being an elf? You have a good shape and ideal chin configuration. And you're short and tubby enough to make a passable diminutive helper.'

Valent is the dean of the world's oldest Santa school. Every year, 40 aspiring Santas receive its vocational training certificate, recognised by reputable grottoes worldwide.

I'm interviewed for the new intake at the Charles W. Howard School in Midland, Michigan. I tell my interviewer, who moonlights as a professional insurance broker, that I'm desperate to learn how to be Father Christmas. I make it clear I definitely do not want to be a fairy.

'Being Santa is not an act,' says Valent, who has taught Santa skills in Greenland, Britain, Switzerland and Australia. 'It's a state of mind. You see things differently from behind a big fluffy white beard. Not everyone is as warm-hearted as they think. Being Santa is one of the hardest jobs in the world.

'It may sound obvious, but a Santa must wash and clean his teeth regularly. Bad breath, bitten fingernails and body odour are no-nos. Especially in the confines of an imitation cave. We want students who believe in Santa and the ideals he stands for. He's not a jolly old boy with red cheeks who turns up once a year and dishes out presents, does a lot of waving and ho-ho-hoing and goes home. He's a powerful force for good. He makes dreams come true. Our graduates are ambassadors of peace, love and goodwill.'

Howard was a farmer in New York state, but at Christmas used to make toys in the front window of a large store. In 1937, disgusted by the store's shabby Santa, he opened his school. He designed the traditional scarlet suit and was a consultant on the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street.

On his death in 1968, the school was taken over by his most eager student, Nate Doan. Classes in Santa theory and practice were held in his living room and the basement of his local church until 1987, when Valent and his wife, Holly, took over.

'Tom had his calling when I was expecting our first child,' says Holly, a teacher. 'I made him his first suit. He enrolled in Nate Doan's school and became a star student. He even bought three reindeers as pets.'

The Santa School syllabus includes master classes in Developing Your Polar Image and the history of St Nicholas, and clinics in storytelling, tree decoration, gift wrapping, beard care and reindeer driving. Students at the end of the three-day course sit a written exam.

Valent does the ho-ho-hoing classes while Holly takes the singing. 'Shaking your sleigh bells gives you one of the neatest feelings,' she says. 'My heart starts pumping. Tom gets a real glow. Singing Jingle Bells every day keeps the doctor away.'

The school accepts students of all ages and both sexes. Padding and facial hair are provided when necessary. Although my facial hair would have to be rented, I think I possess the florid face, kindly smiling eyes and prerequisite paunch. I've always got on well with ruminants and undersized cobblers. All the sherry, custard cream biscuits, milk and heavy lifting didn't worry me.

Valent sees it differently. Putting a consoling arm round my shoulder, the headmaster says he's had to fail me but is placing me on the waiting list. 'Don't take it personally. Santas remain true to children's fantasies, the mask must never drop. I want students to preserve the positive values of Christmas - that giving is better than receiving. I'm sure one day you'll make a great Santa Claus. But you have to put the work in.'

If you see yourself in a big red suit, go to www.santaclausschool.com.