News & Classical Music from Northern Michigan
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The “Harvard of Santa Schools” can be found in Midland, Michigan

The Santa House in Midland is the longest-running Santa school in the country.
Courtesy of the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School
The Santa House in Midland is the longest-running Santa school in the country.

Stateside's conversation with Tom Valen, dean of the Charles W. Howard Santa School, and state archivist Mark Harvey.

“He errs who thinks Santa enters through the chimney. Santa enters through the heart.”

So said the founder of the Charles W. Howard Santa School in Midland, Michigan.

Yes, you read that right. There is such a thing as Santa school, and the one in Michigan is the longest-running in the country. With students coming from as far as Australia and Denmark, it’s known as the “Harvard of Santa Schools.”

The school’s curriculum includes the history of Santa, some flying lessons, learning about the North Pole, and yes, plenty of milk and cookies (although the treats are balanced out with health classes).

Tom Valent and his wife, Holly.
Tom Valent and his wife, Holly.

The current dean of the school is Tom Valen. He and State Archivist Mark Harvey joined Stateside to discuss the school, and more importantly, the magic of Christmas.

You can hear the full conversation above, or read highlights below.

On becoming Santa Claus

Tom: “When you portray the image of Santa, it’s a privilege, it’s an honor, and it’s a wonderful thing. It’s basically making people, and enjoying the spirit of Christmas — the spirit of Santa Claus. And when you make folks happy, you know how it is, they let you know how good they feel. It’s just a good feeling that grows.”

“Each year, there’s 40 hours of class in three days ... we start early in the morning, and we go till late at night, so all those Santas are just really tired. We cover a lot. We cover the history of Santa, we cover the legends, we let them be comfortable singing with the group, we teach them a little sign language.”

On the definition of “Santa spirit”

Tom: “Love and giving. If someone were to ask me, when I’m portraying that image, am I the real Santa? I would say, ‘I’m the spirit of Christmas. I stand for love and giving.’ And that sums it up right there.”

On the school’s founder, Charles W. Howard

A few Santas take a break between sessions at the Santa House.
Credit Courtesy of the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School
A few Santas take a break between sessions at the Santa House.

Mark: “He was a native New Yorker. He was born in Albion, New York, and it’s reported he first portrayed Santa in the fourth grade. And was hooked. And he kept doing it, and his renown grew because clearly he had that Christmas spirit.

He was the Macy’s Christmas Parade Santa Claus from 1948 through ‘65 … And in 1937, because he was so renowned for this ... a journalist suggested he start a school. And he did that right in his own home. He started the first Santa classes in his own house. It became popular, and then he grew and built the Christmas park next door to his residence and held the classes there. And he passed in 1966, and that’s when the school moved to Midland, Michigan.”

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

(Subscribe to the Stateside podcast oniTunes,Google Play, or with thisRSS link)

Copyright 2021 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.

Emma is currently the online news intern at Michigan Radio. In addition to covering news, she assists with The Environment Report and other programs. Emma is a senior at the University of Michigan majoring in Communication Studies and Screen Arts & Cultures, and plans to pursue radio and digital journalism in the future. When she's not at Michigan Radio, Emma can be found at various coffee shops around Ann Arbor.
Read more about the Stateside.