Dec. 24, 2010— -- Tom Valent started suiting up as Santa Claus when he was just 25 years old, doing his part to spread the Christmas spirit until the real Santa arrives on Christmas Eve.
"This will be my 35th year," says Valent. "People ask me what made you want to be a Santa and I don't have an answer for that. I just feel at one point in my life I had a calling, I was about 25 years old at the time -- maybe a little bit young now that I look back -- but I just think, I just wanted to be Santa."
Valent remembers that first family he visited as Santa, wearing the bright red suit that his wife Holly had sewn by hand.
"I put on the suit that Holly had made for me and an inexpensive beard that we had purchased at the time, and I had done my visit and it made me feel good, and it made the family feel good. They called back and thanked me for the work I had done and I was pretty pleased."
But Valent was young, and thought he could be an even better Santa. So he enrolled in a local Michigan Santa Claus school. Yes, Santa has a school. A three-day, 40-hour program that teaches you everything you need to know about the real Santa.
"I had to take three days off from work, and that wasn't normal for me to take any time off from work, and my wife Holly always questioned that. And I still never missed school."
In fact, Valent kept going to that school every year, for the next ten years -- not because he couldn't graduate, but because he really enjoyed being there.
"I just remember it being a very warm, friendly experience, so it was very small. There was just myself and one other Santa there so there was two of us at this first school," says Valent. "It was back to childhood, back to the fantasy of the legend of Santa Claus and something that made me feel good and comfortable."
So it might come as no surprise that Valent now runs the school, located right on Main Street in Midland, Mich. It's not the North Pole, but nearly as cold. And the school has grown over the years, from just two students on a couch to 100 students a year -- students who then go out and suit up across the country to prepare for their idol's arrival on Christmas Eve.
Classes being in mid-October, with many of the Santa's beginning their work in mid-November says Valent. Many of the students are return Santas just like Valent was when he first started.
The school provides a rigorous curriculum, teaching them everything from Santa's history to how to say "Merry Christmas" in sign language.
"You study the legends and you study the dress," says Valent. "Santa has to be perfect. So, your dress has to be perfect. You have the red and white suit. The red stands for healthy outdoorsman, the white stands for purity."
The school also teaches the Santas some practical lessons, including how to stay healthy despite Santa's jolly figure and love of milk and cookies.
"We do try to teach the Santas that eating healthy is important. If you stay healthy, you're more alert, you're more up and you can have that conversation," says Valent. "[It's] not really fair to the children if that Santa can't participate in a good conversation and be up, happy, and jolly that whole time. Children remember the conversation and the visit for a long time."
Another key lesson: How to prepare for the many of questions they are sure to get from all the children they meet.
"They're going to ask a lot of questions about the North Pole. They want to know 'how old is Rudolph?' Rudolph is 71 years old this year. He was born in 1939. They'll want to know how many elves you have. I always tell them I have 886 elves … I don't know where I got that number but that's what I've been telling them for 35 years and it works," says Valent.
And perhaps, most importantly, "Never think you are the real Santa," says Valent. "It's a privilege, not a job."