Everybody knows that Santa Claus’ workshop is at the North Pole, but where’s Santa University?

In Arvada, it turns out. The Noerr Programs, the Colorado company that provides Santas to 225 shopping centers in 38 states, hosts Santa University annually at its Arvada headquarters. The most recent class this summer was composed of more than 80 of the company’s Santas from across the country.

The first day of class is an awesome sight: a room filled wall to wall with men in red caps and white beards, each one jollier than the next. The Santas seldom gather in such numbers, and when they do, they seem to feed off of each other’s Christmas spirit. They burst into song, and even though they didn’t rehearse “Jingle Bells” together, their hearty baritones automatically find the same key, complete with harmonies.

The Santas gather for a week of courses to help them perfect their presentation: how to handle the inevitable requests for ponies, how to hold children safely, how to bleach their beards to their snowiest hue, and basic sign language and Spanish phrases to help them interact with the greatest number of children.

But all this hard work and training is mere fine-tuning. Real Santas are born, not made, said Judy Noerr, the Noerr Programs’ founder and, with husband Philip Byrne, co-CEO.

“Of course we emphasize the look of a natural, beautiful beard,” Noerr said. “However, it’s the heart of Santa that really matters. It’s that spirit of Santa that connects with children and makes them feel special.”

That spirit lives in the heart of Santa Dan Rogers of Fort Collins. Rogers was impersonating St. Nick long before he began his career as a professional Santa about 15 years ago. When his daughter was little, he would phone her as Santa during the summer to ask her if she had been a good girl since last Christmas.

Like many of his “brother Santas,” he didn’t choose the red suit – it chose him. Rogers had a beard for decades, but when it started turning white, kids began following him around in grocery stores and strangers would ask him where his reindeer were. A friend who ran a day care begged Rogers to don the Santa outfit for the children, and he was astonished by how naturally he inhabited the role. He wasn’t just playing Santa – he was Santa. These days, he’s always ready to jump into character, even when he’s off the clock.

Being Santa gives Rogers a window into the innocence of youth. He recalls a boy who said he didn’t want anything for himself, but just wanted for all the people on Earth to have food.

“That’s a wonderful Christmas wish,” Rogers told him. “What do you think we should get for them?”

The boy put his finger to his mouth in deep contemplation before hitting on the answer: “Pizza!”

A touching phenomenon has emerged in the last few years, Noerr said. Young children of service members deployed overseas will visit Santa with a Christmas wish for their parent to come home. What the kids don’t realize is that their recently returned mom or dad is hidden just behind the Santa set. Santa is able to grant them their wish, and there isn’t a dry eye in the place as the joyful family reunites.

Santa University attendees put together care packages as part of Operation Santa’s Stocking. In the past, they have sent the packages members of the U.S. armed forces. The most recent Santa University class stuffed 1,000 bags with books and gifts for kids as a joint effort with Save the Children and the state’s early literacy program. For a business that’s built on the hearts of its Santas, it’s no surprise that the spirit of giving prevails. 

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