Being Father Christmas: LIFE Goes to Santa Claus School

Santa Claus school, 1961.
Alfred Eisenstaedt—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Caption from LIFE. "On third day of school, Marine John Ray learns how to squint his eyes into a Santa twinkle. His wig and beard are of yak hair. Ray will work at the W. G. Swartz store in Norfolk, Va."
Alfred Eisenstaedt
'60s

Some Santas are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. And then there are those happy fellows who take a week-long class in all things Father Christmas, and come out the other side with a coveted B.S.C. degree (Bachelor of Santa Claus).

Such was the fate of those who, for years, chose to take instruction at Charles Howard’s Santa Claus School in the upstate New York town of Albion, not far from Rochester. In fact, the school still exists today, 75 years after it was founded by Howard in 1937; since the mid-1960s, it has operated out of Midland, Michigan, and remains the world’s oldest Santa school.

In 1961, LIFE’s Alfred Eisenstaedt visited Howard’s school for would-be Santas, and made a series of photos chronicling the evidently quite fun process of learning to be all the Santa Claus one can be. (Many of the pictures here were not originally published in the article that ran in LIFE.) In its November 17, 1961, issue, LIFE shared the lighthearted goings-on at the school with its readers:

Alfred Eisenstaedt—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Alfred Eisenstaedt—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Charles Howard showing students how much of Santa's face should show between wig and beard, 1961.

In Albion, N.Y., Charles Howard (right) runs the country’s only school of its kind for Santas and this fall has graduated 15, most sent up for training by department stores. Howard himself is the nation’s No. 1 Santa, the one who waves from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

Howard’s school gives a Santa’s Helper degree after a five-day, $75 course and a post-graduate B.S.C. (Bachelor of Santa Claus).

He teaches the history of Santa Claus, make-up and costumes (“Don’t use false eyebrows — let your own grow”), Christmas stories and how to be jolly. He tells how to cope with young hazards Santa may find in his lap. There is the tear-spiller (“All you can do is get his mind off what’s bothering him”) and the shin-kicker (“Santa is no reformer so don’t spend much time with him”). Most dangerous of all is the beard-yanker. “When you see a devilish gleam in the eye,” he says, “you know you’ve got one. So you grab your beard underneath, hold tight and when he yanks, holler Ouch.”

Finally, we’ll end with one of Howard’s more memorable quotes about St. Nick, and the power of belief in an age of doubt: “To say there is no Santa Claus is the most erroneous statement in the world. Santa Claus is a thought that is passed from generation to generation. After time this thought takes on a human form. Maybe if all children and adults understand the symbolism of this thought we can actually attain Peace on Earth and good will to men everywhere.”
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