MIDLAND, Mich. — The license plate on Lowell Hendrickson's pickup reads "I'MCLAUS," and a look at the man behind the wheel explains it.
His snowy hair falls to his shoulders, his white beard to his chest. Spectacles perch on his upturned nose, and his waistline — well, you get the idea.
Hendrickson is indeed Claus — Santa Claus. But even Santa needs an occasional refresher course to keep up with the newest toys and the latest in beard-grooming and resume-writing, which is why Hendrickson drove from his North Hills home in the San Fernando Valley to eastern Michigan this month to attend the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School, reputedly the world's oldest institution dedicated to the art of being Santa.
One thing became clear as the once-a-year, three-day course unfolded: It's not easy being Santa in these days of economic distress, families splintered by war, liability issues (Santa never flirts, and his hands must always be visible) and children asking for things that parents and grandparents can't afford or don't understand.
IPads, iPods and smartphones, for instance.
That's why people like Hendrickson, 71, make the pilgrimage to Midland to attend what graduates have called the "Harvard of Santa schools" and fire up the spirit that will carry them through the next two months.
"It's not a job; it's a calling," said Hendrickson, who has been Santa since the 1970s and who mainly does private holiday parties. He has attended the school six times.
"When I come back here, it's like coming home. "… And there's always something new to learn," he said.
Six visits is not unusually high for many of the Santas — a few with Mrs. Claus in tow — who gathered for the opening day of class. Roland Davenport, a red-haired Michigan lawyer also known as "attorney Santa," was on his eighth. Tom Valent, the school's owner, went through the course 10 times before he and his wife, Holly (her real name), eventually took over the school.
This year marked a milestone: It was the 75th class and the biggest, with nearly 120 students who each paid about $400 for lectures, field trips, hands-on training and two banquets.
Howard, the school founder, was a Santa with an impressive resume that included being St. Nick for Macy's. He opened the school in 1937 after coming across too many other Santas with frayed beards, shoddy suits and limited knowledge of reindeer. Valent took over the school in 1986 and retains most of Howard's original curriculum, along with modern additions such as contract issues and how to endure the rigors of being a mall Santa (get a flu shot and negotiate regular bathroom breaks).
Tinsel Santa hats dangled from the ceiling of a hotel conference room where the pupils gathered for introductions. There were Santas with tattoos and Santas in sunglasses. Santas in reindeer sweaters. Santas in Hawaiian shirts and in T-shirts and jeans. Some wore boots, some wore red high-tops. There were Santas as young as 28 and Santas as old as 80. Santas texted and emailed, and Santa cellphones rang — one with a ringtone that trilled the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy."
There were a few slender Santas, and some with bald heads, shaved faces or dark hair. Some leaned on canes. Mike Durkin, who referred to himself as "pirate Santa," wore an eye patch that he swaps for a realistic prosthetic eyeball when he "gets in the big chair," Santa-speak for playing the role.
But most looked as if they had stepped out of a Christmas card, from their blue eyes and white beards to their ballooning midsections. Several had traveled thousands of miles, including a veteran Santa from Norway, and about half were here for the first time.
Like Hendrickson years earlier, they would learn that there is far more to being a good Santa than balancing children on your knee and saying, "Ho ho ho!"
"When I first came here, I never thought of where my hands were, or background checks, or insurance. I never thought of anything like that," Hendrickson said. "I figured Santa Claus is Santa Claus. He loves little children."
Which brings up a point made by Valent as he lectured new students in his gingerbread-style Santa House. Best to avoid saying things like "I love little children," a phrase now associated with accused pedophiles, Valent said, standing in front of a fireplace adorned with stockings.
Valent, who owns a construction business, built the Santa House at a busy downtown corner to ensure Santa had a place to host children during the holiday season. Oversized toys, sparkling ornaments, tinsel, giant nutcrackers, electric trains and motorized reindeer fill the cavernous main room. The centerpiece is a huge Santa chair.
Valent's cheerful demeanor belies the seriousness with which he approaches his mission of ensuring that Santa Claus embodies perfection, from fresh breath and clean whiskers to impeccable morals.
He's not here to get these Santas jobs — the school has no placement services. He's here to make sure that whether they play Santa in malls or parades, or in hospitals, homeless shelters or private parties, they do it flawlessly.
"It's a privilege to be Santa Claus," said Valent, who has been Santa Claus himself for 35 years, from Greenland to Midland. "You're taking on a character that stands for all good things."
With many families struggling financially, Valent said, the gift lists he sees seem to be shorter and leaning toward necessities such as pajamas and coats instead of toys.
There may be one upside to the down economy, he added.
"I think Santa is becoming more and more popular," he said, speculating that in hard times, people look for ways of marking the holidays that don't involve lavish gifts. "Maybe without the extra funds, there's a lot more time for family and bringing Santa into the celebration."
That makes it crucial for Santa to be prepared for anything, from the mom who wants to sit on his knee (gently dissuade her) to the children who want to know everything about Santa's reindeer. Santa must know all their names and Rudolph's age — he turned 72 this year. He must know the history of St. Nicholas, the words to favorite holiday songs and poems, and how to spin Christmas tales and descriptions of the North Pole off the top of his head. He must learn to say "Merry Christmas" in sign language.
He must also learn to never promise anything, an important lesson drummed into the Santas during a field trip to Toys R Us to check out the latest toys. "Who's going to come up with that kind of money?" Santa Jerry Thomas exclaimed about a Lego kit priced at $279.99.
"If you promise them something and that Barbie doll doesn't show up, that's a bad situation," said Valent, who suggests a variety of responses that show Santa is listening without committing. But if a gift is promised and fails to show up, he said, "Blame it on the elves, who do the packing."
Class extended far beyond how to behave in the big chair.
A fitness trainer led a rigorous workout of jumping jacks, stretches and push-ups, all to prevent cramping and soreness after hours in Santa's chair. Luke McBride, a Santa working major resorts in Miami and the Bahamas, demonstrated how to apply blush high on the cheeks to get that wind-blown, just-off-the-sleigh look. Davenport, the "attorney Santa," advised them to wear white gloves to keep their hands highly visible, to lessen the chance of molestation accusations.
"You gentlemen, just by being Santa Claus, are under the highest scrutiny," he said sternly. "You do not want to leave a child with the memory of Santa hitting on Mom."
Even the Santas who may think they've seen it all were put through practice sessions for the coming season. One, posing as a little boy named Andrew, asked a fellow Santa from New York for an assault rifle. "Santa's going to see what he can do, but you and your sister are going to have to get along a little better" came the reply.
Another asked for his father, away at war, to come home. Santa clucked sympathetically and suggested "Little Bobby" chat with his dad on Skype.
Those are the kinds of difficult questions that Santa school teaches you to navigate, said Hendrickson, a retired Los Angeles Community College District employee who comes here to be "the best Santa Claus I can be."
One thing the school hasn't taught Hendrickson, though, is how to stay jolly once Santa season ends on Christmas Eve.
"Christmas Day is a downer for me because I don't have any family," said Hendrickson, who considers fellow Santas his family. "I go out to a restaurant and eat my turkey dinner."
There's always next year, though, and 40 people have already signed up for the class of 2012.