Participants at Santa School in Midland, Michigan in Oct. 19, 2018. (AFP/Jeff Kowalsky)
Each year, more than 200 past and present Santas converge on a little town in the US state of Michigan for intensive study of what it takes to portray Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.
The sea of white beards and copious bellies arrives in October for three days of training.
The students and alumni (who come for the annual reunion) learn the history of Santa Claus, proper dress and how best to below: "Ho Ho Ho!"
They also exchange tricks of the trade and practice, practice, practice -- everything from beard keeping, toy making, and riding a sleigh.
"They are portraying this image of one of the world's most famous characters," Tom Valent, dean of The Charles W Howard Santa Claus School, tells AFP.
"We teach a little bit about the history of Santa so they understand who they are and what it is that we are portraying."
The Santas come from all over the US, as well as Canada and Europe, for what is billed as the oldest Santa training academy in the world.
The school was established in 1937 and is considered by attendees the "Harvard" of Santa schools (there are two others in North America).
Santas learn all the names of their reindeer and which toys are the most in demand in any given year.
They ride a steam-powered locomotive to get a feel for what it must be like to take the Polar Express to the North Pole. They even sit on a pile of coal.
"All those Santas were collecting coal for the bad kids," Valent says.
The training can pay off. There are amateurs, yes, among the student Santas. They will take what they've learned to local churches and schools.
But, there are also professionals who charge appearance fees and make extra money during the holidays.
Valent says whatever the students' motives for attending his school, the goal is the same -- to teach them how to answer all of the tricky questions children will ask.
Especially, the biggest one: 'Are you the real Santa?'
Valent hopes his students respond: "I'm the spirit of Christmas. I stand for love and giving."
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