HUFFPOST PERSONAL
12/24/2018 02:00 pm ET Updated Dec 25, 2018

I Went To Santa School To Become A Professional Mrs. Claus

Photo Courtesy of Ann Votaw

I often wonder why Mrs. C chose me.

Slim and in my mid-40s, I am a tall, single New Yorker who ordinarily wouldn’t dream of making myself look older. I’m not domestic. In fact, I sometimes eat entire meals over my sink while my two cats stand sentry.

As a former musical theater dancer, I have always possessed a zeal for zany hats and vintage clothing. Today, I’m out of showbiz, but for the last several years, I have been working as a recreational therapist, incorporating dance into my job at a Jewish senior center.

Each December, my male actor pals put on red suits to earn a few extra bucks. When they told me stories of riding on top of fire trucks for local charities, I realized I wanted to do that.

Last holiday season, I spent hours searching for costumes online. Most of the clothing on Amazon was offensive — ranging from short dresses and thigh-high stocks to frumpy kitchen dresses and limp aprons. But as an experiment, I paired a black-and-white bustle skirt with my own red coat and a white lacy scarf. The crisp Edwardian look influenced me to gesture like a classy older woman.

I asked the leaders of a neighborhood garden if I might attend the annual tree lighting as Mrs. Claus. “We can’t pay you,” one of the board members told me on the phone. “That’s fine,” I said, suddenly determined.

So I arrived at my first gig in a pompadour wig and an adorable green hat with a red bow. Once the tree was lit and carols sung, I did a little twirl. That’s when Mrs. C entered my soul. For the next three nights, I lay awake in bed smiling in the dark.  

Mrs. Claus on ice.
Photo Courtesy of Ann Votaw
Mrs. Claus on ice.

Outside the Kringle-sphere, the news cycle churned out endless headlines about mass shootings, climate change and toxic masculinity. While I certainly wanted to stay informed, I had begun to feel helpless against the deluge of negativity. Mrs. Claus became my guardian angel. Where I felt weak, she was unflappable. As an ageless humanoid, she had witnessed history repeating itself for centuries. Moving forward was her personal brand; at least that’s how her spirit expressed itself in me.

After that first gig, I perused every St. Nick forum I could find. Although I was late for getting jobs during the 2017 season, I thought I might have a jump on next December. Needing sturdier credentials, I applied for a scholarship to the Harvard of Christmas institutions, the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, Michigan.

By April, I learned I had won a scholarship to the school from the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, a professional organization that sets high standards for Christmas characters.

“You’re serious about this,” my girlfriends told me. “It’s about time we had a feminist Mrs. Claus.”

Except my Mrs. C wasn’t trying to make a political statement. As I let her speak to me and take over a quarter of my closet with crimson jackets and tulle, I developed a picture of her spouse. Because Santa was such a caring CEO, best friend and lifelong sweetheart, gender discrimination didn’t exist at the North Pole. They were confident, both together and apart. How I’d like to find that in my own romantic life.

Tom Valent of the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School and the author.
Photo Courtesy of Ann Votaw
Tom Valent of the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School and the author.

In October, on the first frosty morning of Santa school, I went to the hotel’s breakfast buffet to see nearly 20 real-beards and a few designer-beards drinking coffee and hanging out. (In the Santa community, “real-beards” grow their own whiskers. “Designer beards” appear as themselves in their workaday lives. For events, they glue on waves of luxurious white hair.)

“Merry Christmas!” I shouted, so excited I felt like I was 7-years-old. “Merry Christmas!” they yelled back.

The hardest part of the training would be to hold in my elation, so I wouldn’t crash the rental car or faint when I met fellow pupils, 200 men and 50 other women.

In the arts center’s auditorium, deans Tom and Holly Valent (her real name) motioned for us to stand up and sing “Jingle Bells” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” They told us we would learn stage makeup, beard and wig care, and how to develop believable stories about the North Pole. While we would touch on entrepreneurial aspects of the biz, the Valents would focus on the “heart of Santa.”

My own Santa memories are my most cherished. When I was a little kid in Indiana, my parents got me and my younger brother dressed up to meet the big man at the mall each year. I still feel the magic — the genetic impulse to gasp every time I see St. Nicholas.

Now I was among an army of witty, jubilant Clauses in “casual dress” that included overalls, newsboy caps and yards of plaid. I wore a green blouse and a giant feather corsage.

During an evening break, we Clausian cousins wandered the streets of downtown Midland, an industrial city located between the Mitten State’s thumb and pointer finger. Drivers honked and snapped photos through the windshields.

On Main Street, we visited the Santa House, a fantastical building featuring real falling snow, model trains, and actual reindeer. Here, I linked eyes with a gorgeous Mrs. Claus from Ohio. Even though we didn’t know each other, we laughed together.

On the final day of classes, we Clauses met up at a construction site to make wooden ducks in the workshop. Once I finished my old-fashioned push toy with flapping vinyl feet, I sauntered over to a nearby warehouse, where Midland’s parade sleigh was stored. Santas lined up all the way to the door for a chance to pull the reins on the lifelike reindeer.

At the front of the queue, I spotted Mrs. C from Ohio. She was taking videos for each grown adult who wanted to drive the sleigh through the midnight sky. Again, our eyes met and we got the giggles.

Holding the toy duck I made at Santa school.
Photo Courtesy of Ann Votaw
Holding the toy duck I made at Santa school.

Back in New York, I showed my vacation photos to everyone, including the warden during my jury duty. “Wow,” the warden told me in his heavy Queens accent. “Everybody looks so happy.” 

In Chinatown, shopkeepers lit up when I handed them business cards that stated: “Caught being nice.” They gave me extra discounts for all my new costume purchases that included faux white fur and a copy of Princess Diana’s engagement ring, loose enough to fit over my scarlet gloves.

My wardrobe now included a floor-length dress for more formal affairs and two additional wigs, thanks to my grandma’s contribution. But finding paid or voluntary gigs in the big city was harder than I expected.

On GigSalad, an online platform that matches performers to events, I receive three inquiries a day — for Santa. When I write back explaining I’m a charming Mrs. Claus, I rarely get a response. If I do, the explanation is this: “We’re looking for just him.”

Santa was born in New York City, an incarnation of the Dutch Sinterklaas, later transformed into the guy we admire each year in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Party planners are open to hiring her, but his iconography overshadows hers so much that I may need to strategize differently than Mrs. Cs around the United States, where her legend is picking up momentum.

So far the only New York gig I’ve done this year was the garden party where I got my start. But in my hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, I had no trouble working the Holly Trolley during Small Business Saturday. Last weekend in Connecticut, a Santa agent and former Ringling Bros. clown took me on as his “latest wife” for a yacht club event. Children naturally gravitated toward him, but the babies preferred Mrs. Claus. As temporary life partners, we had a blast together.

I picture Mrs. Claus ringing the bell to the New York Stock Exchange. In the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, I envision a dialogue between Santa and her, because Mr. and Mrs. C sparkle like Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. Together, their charisma could illuminate the planet.

Until then, I’ve been going out as her a few times a week to promote her brand and to practice. When subway conductors see me running in a bonnet and fur-trimmed dress, they hold the doors open just for me. At Rockefeller Center, a fake Minnie Mouse ripped of her head to inform a fake Elmo that “Mrs. Claus is here!” In my apartment building, I rocked the world of a pair of stoners when I knocked on their door. “Holy ssshh—!” they exclaimed, pushing through clouds of smoke. “It’s Mrs. Claus.”

Photo Courtesy of Ann Votaw

Yet my favorite Mrs. C story is when I was at the grocery checkout dressed as myself. “There’s something about you that reminds me of Christmas,” the young clerk told me.

“That’s because I’m Mrs. Claus,” I informed him.

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