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Drew Shannon

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This week, First Person celebrates the fun and frustrating holiday season.

It’s been a long time since I felt the excitement of Christmas. Over the years, Santa has become emotionally remote to me, as one might expect of someone approaching his 70th year.

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Growing up, I needed him. I was often looked upon as wayward, inattentive and disruptive. But in spite of how adults labelled me, Santa came through. He ate my cookies and milk, and left behind a small gift, which strangely was never on my wish list. But Santa made me feel as if I was deserving after all, each and every Christmas without fail.

As an adult, I no longer need the affirmation of a magical bearded man to make me feel accepted or loved. That, I thankfully get from my family and friends. And when I would walk past a mall Santa and see the giggling children lining up for a brief visit; I’d smile, barely giving it a second thought.

Not that I haven’t always been a fan. For the past 20 years, I have been marching in Canada’s largest Santa Claus parade in Toronto, usually in costume as a bear, beaver or, more recently, a skunk. I have always harboured the hope that one day I might have the courage and opportunity of auditioning for the top job – Santa. Knowing this, my wife enrolled me in the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School as a birthday gift. Located in Midland, Mich., since 1937, it calls itself the longest continuously running Santa Claus School in the world. I had no idea what to expect but I accepted the gift with gratitude, packed my bags and headed to Midland in October, ready to embrace all things Santa.

Once a year, 200 potential Santas and Mrs. Clauses gather for three days in this small community to sharpen their skills and discuss the challenges of a modern-day Kris Kringle. I wasn’t prepared for what I encountered. Just imagine for a moment an auditorium filled with authentic looking Santas, notebook in hand, peering over their wire-rimmed glasses with nothing but Christmas on their mind. The vast majority were between 60 and 70 years old; one joined us from Jerusalem and another was of Arab descent, who had pictures of himself in full Santa regalia riding a camel. Many students were accompanied by partners ready to play Mrs. Claus.

We had classes on how to apply makeup, singing and how to make the grand Santa entrance. But we also learned how to handle the disclosure of domestic or sexual abuse, a terminal illness or – more commonly – how to manage the growing expectations of children in a material world. The atmosphere was festive, with spontaneous bouts of laughter and singalongs of all the classic Christmas carols.

The highlight for me was when we hosted a local kindergarten class that came to see Santa and his 200 "cousins”- after all, we all can’t be Santa. The children and their teachers waited on stage behind the curtain when, suddenly, the curtain was pulled back to reveal an audience filled with would-be Santas. Although speechless at first, they quickly began to squeal with delight as the “real” Santa made his entrance with Mrs. Claus.

We students watched as each child sat on Santa’s knee and asked about the reindeer, the elves or what it was like at the North Pole. Each child received an apple, a hug and the customary “Ho Ho Ho.” Once everyone had a visit, we erupted into a rousing rendition of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. If you looked around, there were many who inconspicuously wiped away a tear.

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Santa School brought me back to a time when, as a child, I had faith in the majesty of the unknown and all things good. I can see now that there is still room to be a child again, filled with the possibility that almost anything is possible. Age may be mandatory, but growing up isn’t.

I learned a lot from my fellow students, too. Scott told me he was inspired by his father, a long-time Santa who, one Christmas Eve, received word while working at the mall that his wife had died. There was no possibility of finding a replacement, the alternative was to turn children away after they had waited for so long. Scott’s father decided to remain at his post, believing that his wife, who was his ardent fan, would understand. Scott now celebrates his mother’s memory every Christmas by being a Santa himself.

I met Mike, a retired labourer, who enjoys playing Santa to children with special needs. One year, he spent several hours talking about the North Pole and the meaning of Christmas to a child with selective mutism. To his and everyone’s astonishment, the child began to respond and speak. Years later, Mike still receives a Christmas card, addressed to Santa, from not only his young friend but also from his family, along with an enduring expression of thanks.

Another Santa I met described how he would sit with children who were critically ill on Christmas Eve, and knew how it felt to hold the hand of a dying child. This begs the question that many of us students had – can Santa cry? Yes, Santa is like any man. Expressing sadness through tears is not only acceptable but becomes a positive role model.

At this time of year, we are accustomed to seeing Santa in malls, selling everything from Coca-Cola to used cars. He’s in parades and on street corners soliciting funds on behalf of worthy causes. What we rarely see are those Santas who give their time and love to the disadvantaged. The soul of Santa Claus lies in this selfless generosity.

After three days of Santa School, I rediscovered the Santa I believed in.

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Glenn French lives in Toronto.

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