Western New York Heritage

Old Photo Album: The Santa Claus School in Albion

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The Santa Claus School, located in Albion, NY, offered the only complete Santa Claus program in the world.

In the mind of a child, everything about Santa is perfect; he just does not make mistakes. To the child he is a God or a Good Fairy who stands for everything that is good and fine.

Charles W. Howard

At one time, the village of Albion in rural Orleans County was the unlikely location of a unique venture, a Santa Claus School that offered “the Only Complete Santa Claus Program in the World”.  The school was the brainchild of local farmer, Charles “Charlie” W. Howard, who passionately believed that Santa Claus should be portrayed authentically.

Charlie first portrayed Santa at the age of seven in a school play. His first department store Santa assignment was at McCurdy’s in Rochester. His dismay at the unprofessional appearance and behavior of other Santas lead him to begin the Santa Claus School in 1937 at his farm at the junction of Rt. 31 and Phipps Road, just west of Albion.

The brochure for the Santa Claus School succinctly describes Charlie’s mission, “Dedicated to the training and equipping of men to play the role of Santa Claus.” And a postcard from the school shows a properly dressed Santa Claus.

The Santa School was featured in the December 1956 issue of Town Journal. The cover was titled “How to be a sure-fire Santa Claus.”

“PREENED AND PADDED, [the article’s author, Donald S. Stroetzel] gets help from Santa-trainer Charles Howard in dressing room.”

“UNDER HIS MAKE-UP, Santa should be friendly. Howard, as jovial a man as St. Nick himself, inspires students as much as he teaches them.”

The week-long course covered the history and lore of Santa Claus, the care and maintenance of Santa Claus costumes, the art of make-up for Santa Claus, child psychology, public relations and reindeer care. Students could be fitted for authentic Santa Claus costumes featuring soft fur and hand-sewn leather boots custom made on-site by Mrs. Elizabeth Babcock.

“Lecture on wigs and beards, their use and care. Each student ‘makes up’ daily.”

“Santa’s sleigh. One of the settings where photos of Santa and children are studied.”

Charlie portrayed Santa for the Adam Meldrum and Anderson store in Buffalo from 1944-47. He was catapulted to Santa stardom in 1948 when he was selected to appear as Santa Claus in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade which he proudly did until 1965.

The Christmas Park

In the mid-1950s, he converted his farm into a Christmas Park, which he envisioned as a shrine to all things Santa—a fantastical Santa Claus-themed amusement park with a Christmas Village, Santa’s stable and sleigh, Santa’s train, a wishing well, a gift shop, reindeer and a toy shop. Thousands visited each weekend. It was a magical and memorable experience for children. Although the park was beset by financial problems and closed in the mid-1960s, the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School was purchased and continues to operate in Midland, MI.

The ticket to Christmas Park included a map of the grounds. While a train circumnavigated the 10-acre park, some of the buildings included Santa’s Party House, the Jingle Bell Theatre and the Ginger Bread Forest.

The Christmas Park theme park was open during the non-holiday season. Sites that could be viewed on the train ride were Santa’s Playground, Deer’s Winter Home and St. Nick’s Church of All Faiths. Also included were fun activities like softball, picnicking and amusement park rides.

“Christmas Around the World – The beauty and splendor of Christmas as celebrated in eight countries. Authentically depicted in dimensional scenes – colorfully and dramatically portraying Christmas in England, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Sweden, Poland and the United States of America.”

“Santa’s Farm – It’s fun for children to learn from Santa’s Own Farm. Here your child will meet the old gentleman’s ducks, geese, rabbits, chickens, pigs, ponies, llamas and many other animals. He’ll see peanuts, cereals, popcorn and other crops while they’re actually growing in season!”

“Santa’s Gold Mine – A real old-fashioned diggings, complete with miner’s shack and sluiceway where your child can pan “gold” exactly like the Forty-niners.”

“The Wishing Well – “Keep the bells ringing for the poor children of the world.” The coin you drop in the Wishing Well is used to help make Christmas happy for less fortunate children, for truly Christmas is for children of all ages – all over the world! At the Wishing Well, you’ll see names of children from foreign lands who inscribed their name in the concrete of the floor when it was poured.”

“Toyland – Twenty-three gay little houses just brimming with fire engines, trains, mechanical wonders, laughing dolls, crying dolls . . . toys that will bring joy to lucky boys and girls! Completely rebuilt and enlarged, CHRISTMAS PARK’s Toyland is the land of real make-believe . . . browse thru or shop. The reasonable prices will enable you to make happy all the children on your list!”

The park even offered live reindeer.

With his bright blue eyes, well-padded figure, constant smile, kindness and enthusiasm, Charlie Howard embodied the spirit of Christmas throughout his life. In December 2020, a section of Route 31, from Wood to Transit roads, was dedicated in his memory and will be known as “Charles W. Howard Memorial Highway.”

He errs who thinks Santa enters through the chimney. Santa enters through the heart.

Charles W. Howard

[All images courtesy of the Orleans County History Department unless otherwise noted.]

The Charles W. Howard Legendary Santa Claus School Convention

In April 2015, the Charles W. Howard Legendary Santa Claus School Convention was held in Albion, NY. Over 300 Santas attended the four-day event, some from as far away as Scandinavia, England and France. Programming included vendors selling Santa-related paraphernalia, a film festival and, of course, a Santa workshop.

[Santa Convention images by David K. Wiedemer]

The full content is available in the Winter 2021 Issue.