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Santa Claus school graduates its 75th class of St. Nicks

October 31, 2011 |  6:59 am

Santa School6-1

Santa Claus is coming to town — all 115 versions of him. That's about how many earnest Santas showed up in Midland, Mich., this month for the annual three-day course at the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School, which is reputedly the oldest Santa school in the world.

This year it graduated its 75th class, and we were there, watching as Santas from California to Norway learned that there's much more to being a great Santa than donning a red suit and white beard. There's also much more to attending Tom and Holly Valent's internationally known Santa school than just showing up.

You must submit an application with an essay on why you want to study the art of being the perfect Santa Claus, said Holly Valent, the school's registrar and resident Mrs. Claus. Not everyone passes muster, she said while introducing a visitor to Comet, the Valent family's pet reindeer.

"You can kind of weed them out," Valent said of unsuitable would-be Santas, adding that anyone who mentions making money as a driving force behind their desire to be Santa Claus raises red flags. "It's not a job. It's a privilege," said Tom Valent, himself a Santa Claus for 35 years. In his lectures, Valent drums into his students the need to make each child's encounter with Santa a wonderful memory.

"If you were a child and you sat on Santa's knee, you remember," said Valent. "Children expect you to be perfect."

The Santa season is short — from about Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve — and while some experienced Santas might score paid gigs at major hotels or malls, many earn little or nothing playing Santa at hospitals, schools or simply at home for their own families. It can be grueling, sitting for several hours at a time listening to children, answering their questions and always being cheerful, understanding and attentive.

One of this year's students, Andrew Becerra, hopes to volunteer at pediatric hospitals once he finds a salon to turn his black hair — and eyebrows and beard — snowy white. Becerra, at 30 one of the youngest Santa students, is one of few with dark features. He also had one of the most compelling reasons for wanting to be Santa.

In 2005, Becerra was a U.S. Marine based in Iraq when the vehicle he was in hit a landmine and rolled over. He survived, but with major injuries that left him unable to work full time. Now able to pursue volunteer projects, Becerra applied to the school and was accepted.

Another ex-serviceman but one with far more Santa experience was Tom Cortemeglia, who retired from a 41-year Navy career on Sept. 30, 2002. He remembers the day well. "The last day I shaved was the day I retired," said Cortemeglia, of Nashville, Tenn., who managed to look like Santa Claus despite his Hawaiian shirt.

The long white beard and hair helped, as did the large belly. Cortemeglia weighs 318 pounds, he says, up from 128 pounds in high school. But it's not just Santa who's getting heavier, said Cortemeglia. Asked about the changes he has noticed over the years as thousands of children have perched on his knee, he replied: "The kids are getting much heavier."

And the contracts have gotten longer, as malls and placement agencies demand drug tests and no-alcohol promises before Santa sits in his chair. Background checks are routine nowadays, to ensure that nobody with a criminal record serves as Santa. 

"There are bad Santas out there," Roland Davenport, aka "attorney Santa," said during a lecture to fellow Santas on liability and legal issues.

Perhaps the most important thing to being a good Santa, most of the students agreed, was having the spirit of Santa year-round, not just for a few weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. That's why most of them keep their hair and beards long and white year-round and tend toward red clothes -- a look that draws stares from children as they walk through supermarkets or down the street going about their daily business when the season is over.

"It's gotta be here in the heart," Cortemeglia said of being Santa.

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— Tina Susman in Midland, Mich.

Photos: Santa students take a break from classes at the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, Mich. Credit: Tina Susman / Los Angeles Times

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