The Man Who Started the First Official Santa Claus School in New York
A man named Charles W. Howard was so good at being Santa back in the 1930s, he started a Santa school. The first day of class was September 27, 1937.
Howard’s school set the standard for mall Santas everywhere, turning out graduates for three decades. Before the 20th century, before Howard’s Santa School, the standards for playing Santa Claus allowed for a broad interpretation.
Prior to the ‘30s, Santa took many forms, an overgrown scary elf, a tall skinny man, a religious saint, and even a Norse huntsman donning an animal skin. As the mascot of the biggest holiday in the West was often more frightening than he was jolly.
Howard doesn’t take all the credit for creating the current notion of Santa. Coca-Cola and the political cartoonist Thomas Nast are as much to blame for the look of the man in the red suit, but one could argue that Howard gave Santa his character.
Charles W. Howard
Born in Albion, New York, to William Asa and Martha Howard, young Charlie grew up with music. Both of his parents were musically inclined, which is part of what drew Howard to performance. That wasn’t his only interest, though.
Starting in grade school, Howard started entering world’s largest competitions to make the largest cakes and pies for county and state fairs.
Foreshadowing his future as Santa, he also picked up the art of making toys from the Mechanics Institute in Rochester, New York.
In 1919, Howard started the Medina Toy Company, making “Sturdy Toys” from wood. His slogan was, “Buy Liberty Bonds and Howard’s Toys and Make the Kaiser Stop His Noise.”
Regarding Howard’s penchant for performance, he not only acted in plays growing up but wrote, directed and produced them. He played Santa Claus for the first time in 4th grade. It was for the school play, but the gig impacted the impressionable 4th grader.
Howard kept playing Santa as he aged, developing a reputation as the guy to call when someone needed a Santa Claus, but not just in Albion. Howard developed a national acclaim.
In 1937, a journalist suggested to Howard that he start a school to teach others his ways. With a few tools, starting in the colonial-style Albion home where Howard grew up, he did just that.
It turned out Howard’s school was a good idea, the first of its kind. Howard appointed himself the dean of his famous school. In 1937, the school offered a Bachelor of Santa Claus (B.S.C.) for $75. In today’s money, that would be almost $500.
Department stores everywhere hired graduates of Howard’s Santa school. It did well enough to expand into a Christmas Park in 1940. There, a wishing well, decorations, rides, and a petting zoo attracted children, creating a live proving ground for Santas-in-training.
Despite only having three rides, one of which was a pony ride, the park wasn’t some roadside snoozer either. At its peak, some 80,000 visitors a year visited Howard’s Christmas Park.
The tunnel for the miniature train ride remains on the property where the park once inspired thousands of children.
Although he never worked at the New York location, from 1948 to 1965, Howard was the Santa used in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. His Santa gig for Macy’s was at the Kansas City, Missouri store.
No surprise, Howard was also the technical advisor for the movie, “Miracle On 34th Street.” No other movie spread the idea of Santa Claus than that film, cementing Howard’s legacy as most famous Santa.
Charles W. Howard passed away on May 1, 1966. He was 69 years old, a young man by even human standards, but especially by North Pole standards. Before he passed, Howard named his successor, a man named Nathan Doan.
Doan and his wife, Mary Ida, moved the business to Michigan, where it remains to this day. Then, when they grew too aged to do the work, Nathan Doan and Mary Ida passed the torch to Tom and Holly Valent.
In 1987, the Valents converted the school into a non-profit organization. The couple has carried on the tradition of Charles Howard, portraying Santa and Mrs. Claus for over thirty years.
Few people would ever inspire so much Christmas spirit as Charles Howard, spread through everyone he touched with his version of Santa Claus.
Today, a Waymark stands on the site where Howard started his school in Albion. Some of the old park features remain on that property, a whisper of Howard’s Christmas spirit.