If it’s fall in Midland, you can bet that it is the hundreds of ‘students’ that flock to the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School.
The Great Lakes Bay Region is known by many as a holiday destination, with the nearby Bronners CHRISTmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth. However, Midland is a popular destination for the holiday spirit in a very unique way as the home of some very important training - the world's longest running Santa Claus School.
The CWH Santa Claus School started in 1937 and has been under the direction of Tom Valent since 1987.
Each year, decked out in the famous red and white attire, hundreds of ‘Santa’s cousins’ (what they are coached to go by when dressed up) gather from around the world to learn, inspire and kick off the holiday spirit of Christmas. The School is the longest running training school of its kind, a tradition that has carried on since 1937 when it was started in New York by Charles W. Howard, a Santa in the popular Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
This year, 300 students attended the school, some new students and some returning.
The school continued on as a small group after Charles Howard passed away in 1966, moving from New York, to Albion and eventually to Bay City, Michigan. Steady but quaint, the school operated mostly out of the homes of a few dedicated individuals who taught classes of 6-8 students. This is where Tom Valent, the school’s current Dean, received his training. Tom had bigger aspirations and the means to grow the program he felt so passionately for.
Midland's Santa House has been a community favorite since 1986.
Tom and his wife Holly have been involved with the School since 1976, and were instrumental in the 1986 build of Midland’s ever popular Santa House, which spurred the relocation and expansion of the program to what it is today.
As a civil engineer and the president and CEO of Gerace Construction Company, Valent is also an expert toy builder, which comes in handy being the Dean of such an important endeavor. The Valent’s are committed to the cause in more ways the one – the couple even have reindeer, which often comes as a delightful surprise to those who learn more about their passion.
One of the Valent's reindeer ready for the holidays.
This year, for the 81st annual event, the School welcomed nearly 300 students, offering a packed two-day schedule that included trips to Bronner’s in Frankenmuth, Gerace Construction for toy building and a ride on the North Pole Express in Owosso. Each year, the group also catches up on toy trends, Santa attire and answering that age old question. The Santas also find it valuable to catch up with their kind and what is new for their craft in other parts of the world.
Santa’s cousins have joined the School from far and wide including well beyond the United States. Historically participating countries include Germany, Ireland, England, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Canada, Spain, Australia, Greenland, Russia, South Africa and Switzerland. This year, a student from Israel joined in the mix.
Hundreds of Santa's cousins gather at the 2018 Santa Claus School.
The program is so popular, it sells out annually and Valent has to turn away prospective students each year. A familiar face and celebrity also joined in for 2018, drawing even more attention and excitement to the program. Ken Jeong, who you might recognize from The Hangover series of films, completed CWH Santa School this year in preparation for an upcoming holiday special the actor is involved with.
Santa greeting many fans in Downtown Midland.
The impact has brought meaning, cheer and happiness to the Valent’s hearts. “Our greatest joy is seeing the students enjoy their time in Midland as well as the School’s programming and watching their Santa hearts and holiday spirit grow,” says Valent.
“Most everyone remembers sitting on Santa’s lap as a moment of true awe and inspiration,” says Valent. “Being a good Santa means touching the lives of children of all ages and spreading that spirit well beyond the time they spend with us.”
Tom and Holly Valent accepting their "Philanthropists of the Year" Award at the annual Ripple Effect event from MACF.
The Valent’s efforts surely haven’t gone unnoticed, as they were recently named as the 2018 Philanthropists of the Year by the Midland Area Community Foundation at the annual Ripple Effect event on October 17.
Discussing the honor, Valent noted the rich meaning it has brought to his and Holly’s community involvement. “While the work we do is rewarding in and of itself, the recognition from the Midland Area Community Foundation means that Holly and I are in the best community for sharing our talents,” says Valent. “We couldn’t imagine a better fit than Midland for the work we do and we are rewarded for it each and every day.”
The Valent Family at the MACF Ripple Effect event after accepting their award.
“Tom and Holly have been instrumental in bringing the Christmas spirit to Midland and beyond for years and we are truly honored by their giving nature,” says Sharon Mortensen, President and CEO of the Midland Area Community Foundation. “With the Santa House drawing over 40,000 visitors each year, the Valent’s bring such a zest to the community and we are proud to support the Santa House efforts with such great partners in philanthropy.”
Students learning and practicing sign language.
Fred Honerkamp, a longtime Midland resident and Santa says he is inspired by the caliber of students the School attracts.
“The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School has been called the ‘Harvard of Santa School’ for its depth and global reach,” says Honerkamp.
Fred Honerkamp and a friend working in Santa's toy shop.
Which he says with a smile and a laugh, is what keeps him coming back. “This was my 18th year at the School. It isn’t that I am a slow learner, it’s for the fact that I learn new ways to be the very best Santa each and every year.”
“The CWH Santa School attracts the best of the best from around the world and there is always a nice mixture of seasoned Santas and new beginners we see each year,” says Honerkamp.
One of Santa's cousins getting fitted for his beard.
The effect is contagious and fires up both the students and broader community of volunteers to help deliver holiday spirit.
“You can’t be around the very best in the world without being fired up about representing Santa,” says Honerkamp. “We are entrusted with every parent’s most precious possession – their children. A visit with Santa becomes a lifetime memory, so we are committed to make it special.”
Tom and Holly Valent pose with kids for a fun picture.
With all the excitement the CWH Santa School and Midland Santa House brings to town, you just might find yourself a recipient of the contagious good cheer this holiday season.