It may seem easy to look the part of Santa Claus with the beard, red suit and rotund belly, but the owner of the Santa School says there's more to stepping into the black boots than merely mimicking his outer appearance.
Jennifer Andrews has welcomed would-be Santas from around the world to her Calgary-based school where instructors offer guidance on the art of becoming St. Nick.
They also have professionally trained "Santa regional representatives" who work in Calgary and surrounding areas, as well as within North America, Europe and Asia.
"We want them all to be Santa, but they're always their own version of Santa. They're going to bring their own personality and their own backstory," said Andrews, who was recently asked to lead a training crash course for The Magic of Christmas — a Calgary charity.
"One of the things that I always teach the Santas is that I don't want any cookie-cutter Santas," she added. "I usually say I want them to be like snowflakes. They're all individual, they're all beautiful in their own way."
Santa School offers a three-day course for both novices and seasoned Santas emphasizing the importance of embodying the spirit of Claus in physical appearance and mannerisms.
Andrews said participants are taught how to care for their beards, whether they're real or of the "designer" variety. Santas also learn the importance of maintaining a large presence within a room, like crafting their grand entrance and exit and the manner in which they address people, command energy and stir excitement.
Laugh has to come from the belly
Then there's the matter of another key Santa signature: his laugh.
"There are some schools that teach that you do three 'ho, ho, hos' and then you're done. That is not correct. Nobody laughs three times. It's however long that laugh is," said Andrews.
"Sometimes it's a quizzical laugh. Sometimes it's a happy laugh. Sometimes it's a 'You've been naughty' laugh."- Santa School owner Jennifer Andrews
"Sometimes it's a quizzical laugh. Sometimes it's a happy laugh. Sometimes it's a 'You've been naughty' laugh. ... We always teach them how to 'ho, ho, ho' as their laugh and we teach it to come right from their belly."
Bob Slocombe has made appearances as Santa at malls and private parties. His wife, Linda, sometimes portrays Mrs. Claus, and the couple visits a seniors home on Christmas Day.
With a curly white beard and hair flowing past his shoulders, the 66-year-old has no trouble looking the part. He recalled several instances outside of the holidays where he's been out in plain clothes and addressed as Santa.
Still, Slocombe said Santa School offered fresh perspective on his portrayal of Claus. A self-described "big man" around six-foot-four, Slocombe said he tries to be more gentle and quiet when around children to help convey that he's approachable and friendly.
"It was an education in terms of how you say things and deliver yourself both with the physical presence and hand motions and gestures as well as voice," Slocombe said in a phone interview from his farm in the foothills southwest of Calgary.
Transformation more than appearance
"For example, eyebrows should not be knitted together. I have very big eyebrows, I'm fortunate that way, but you don't want them knitted in the centre. That gives a scowling kind of look," he added.
Slocombe said he tries to be slow in his approach to kids, getting them to give him a high five to get them talking and not making a fuss if they don't want to sit on his knee.
"When they can start to know that I'm a real person and that I have genuine interest in them, that usually softens them. Not always, because some of them are genuinely just fearful of all of that hair."
Andrews said even Santas that look "amazing" sometimes rely too much on appearance and not enough on skill. To help complete the transformation — and cement them in character — they're taught to have one last item that they put on prior to leaving for appearances, like their glasses or bells.
"When that goes on, from the time they walk out of wherever they're being dressed, to the time they're out of that suit, they are now Santa," Andrews said.
Despite the joy that can come from inhabiting the role, being Claus can present challenges.
"Put on your hottest winter coat and your ski pants and your tuque and padding and then go sit there for six hours and have little ones on your lap," said Andrews, who said some Santas wear cooling vests beneath their suits.
Dealing with challenges
"They kind of get in to what we call 'the zone' and they kind of start forgetting about that. ... They have to kind of put it on the shelf because it can be really distracting."
Beyond the potential for physical discomfort while in character, kids' visits with Santa can sometimes deliver an unexpected emotional wallop.
"Some little ones have really big things going on in their lives, whether it's death or divorce or other kinds of sadness — they're trying to make sense of that. And sometimes, they see Santa as that go-to figure that might be able to answer those questions," said Andrews.
"We try to equip him with tools to be able to deal with that in a way that's honest, but in a way that's hopeful for them."
For Slocombe, his work as Santa has helped restore joy to the festive season — a time of year that had once proved quite difficult. He worked in a special role with the RCMP in B.C.'s Lower Mainland for 10 years where he dealt with cases involving domestic disputes and suicide during the holidays.
"It's nice to be around some close friends, but it was just another day. Whereas when I got involved with the Santa thing, now this season is longer and it's more exciting. It's a buildup to something very, very special, to portray this magic for children and to be able to answer their questions and really be that grandpa figure for them," said Slocombe.
"In one minute with me, or two minutes, or however long they have to ask me questions or tell me things, they're the most special person on this Earth in my eyes."