Attendees at the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School gather for the first day of class.
Training to be Santa is tough
01:59 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School welcomes 100-plus Santas each October

The Michigan school is the longest continuously running Santa school in the world

Founder: Santa doesn't enter through the chimney, "Santa enters through the heart"

Midland, Michigan CNN  — 

As more than 100 stout and bearded men, all dressed in various shades of red and green, board a train to go rattling through the Michigan countryside for no apparent reason, I turn to Tom Valent and ask, “Why?”

It’s a loaded question. One that has been percolating for days.

Why, in mid-October, would Valent load his entire Santa school onto charter buses and drive them 45 minutes to Huckleberry Railroad, a tourist attraction that is still very obviously in the midst of celebrating Halloween?

Why, the day before, had his student Santas spent hours learning about the legend of Santa Claus – from his birth in Patara to the names of all his elves? Why did Valent have them practice reindeer-handling and sleigh-driving and toy-making?

I mean, come on. Doesn’t Santa Claus use Amazon like the rest of us?

“Do you know the movie ‘The Polar Express’?” Tom asks, answering my question with a question.

Of course. I, too, am a Christmas fanatic. I have a long list of holiday movies I watch religiously every year. The walk-in closet in our condo is no longer a walk-in due to my decoration-hoarding habits. Sometimes in April I listen to “All I Want For Christmas” by Mariah Carey because it makes me smile.

“Polar Express is a great movie, a great story,” Valent continues. “I wanted to give Santa a feeling of what it’s like to ride the Polar Express.”

We board the authentic Baldwin steam locomotive and the conductor blows the whistle. The Santas settle into their seats. Christmas jingles croak from the railroad car’s speakers. Holly, Tom’s wife, mimes grabbing some reins. The rocking train feels a bit like riding in a sleigh, she says.

She’s 100% sincere.

And that, I realize, is the essence of the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School.

The 2015 Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School participants pose for a photo at Huckleberry Railroad.