By Amelia Blades Steward
He slips down our chimneys unnoticed on December 24. But there are a lot of public appearances and record-keeping tasks for Santa Claus as he faces the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. With 10 percent fewer Santas helping with the workload today, a local couple from Cambridge, Don and Susie Bartley, decided that they might make a difference.
While the couple was in Hawaii in 2019 serving as nannies for a family, Don was walking down the road when a stranger stopped him and asked him if he ever thought about being Santa. Although Don never followed up on the man’s offer, he did play Santa for the church they attended in Hawaii one year and the idea of one day being Santa never left him. In March 2020, Don got COVID and shaved off his beard because it was complicating his illness. At this point, the thoughts of being Santa took a backseat – at least for a while anyway. By December 2021, the couple had moved back to Cambridge, and Don was watching the news one evening and heard a report that there were 10 percent fewer Santa Clauses in the market. He recalls, “The news reported that some Santas had died, and some had just decided not to do it anymore. And I thought, wow, another sign for me to do this!”
On Christmas Day 2021, Don decided to grow his beard back and thus began a journey for him and his wife.
This past summer, Susie, who herself had an interest in learning to be Mrs. Claus, had been looking up information about Santa Claus schools for Don. She found the oldest and best Santa Claus School in the world – the W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, Michigan – offered a program once a year in October. She then found the Northern Lights Santa Academy in Atlanta, Georgia, and decided to give the classes to Don as a birthday gift. The two attended the school together in September 2022, his birthday month.
The Northern Lights Santa Academy was started by Santa Rick, a Jewish man who also runs a talent agency. His goal in starting the school was to raise the bar in the industry and to help all Christmas professionals perfect their craft. He founded the Northern Lights Santa Academy to educate, prepare, and energize students to be Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, and Elves. Susan recalls, “When we pulled up to the facility where the training was being held, there were Santas everywhere. It was really exciting!”
The school focused on helping participants learn from the community of holiday professionals who attend each fall and spring and from the networking that goes on over the weekend session. Several diploma levels can be earned over time: General Studies Degree, Associate Antlers Degree, Bachelor Antlers Degree, (Sleigh) Master’s Degree, Advanced (Sleigh) Master’s Degree, Professional Holiday Doctorate, and Advanced Professional Holiday Doctorate. As first-timers, the Bartleys earned the General Studies Degree in the four days they attended.
“One of the main things we learned was that Don wouldn’t ‘play Santa,’ he would ‘be Santa,’” Susie shares. Because both Susie and Don are into playing characters and like theater, acting the part came naturally.
One of the things the Santa School also stressed was to promote the true spirit of Christmas while bringing hope and joy into the lives of children and adults. This includes being careful about how Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus present themselves in public. Susie adds, “The school embraces the values we believe in. The meaning of Christmas tends to get lost in today’s commercialism and materialism.”
Part of the school’s curriculum was to provide a rich history of Santa Claus, beginning with the appearance of Saint Nicholas in 280 AD in modern-day Turkey. Don recalls, “Santa can have a lot of different looks and has over the centuries. Our goal is to develop our own story as Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus and our look. Our story will be based on truth, but as they say, we will ‘Santa-tize’ it.”
Susie shares that Mrs. Claus was first mentioned in the early 16th century in York, England, and has had several names over the years, including Amelia, Holly, Molly, Goody, and Anya.
Since attending the school, the two are working on their wardrobe and giveaways. Don has two suits he will wear – one for special events and a second lesser suit for being in the outside weather of parades and for taking photos with pets. Their names will be Santa Don and Mrs. Claus Susie and the two can work together or independently.
Don states, “We have to find our own niches. There’s more to it than I ever imagined. Just because you put on a Santa suit does not make you Santa.”
One of the couple’s first appearances will be at Center Market in Cambridge on December 3 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Other events have yet to be scheduled, but the couple hopes to work with small local businesses in their work. The couple learned several types of activities they can offer as Home Visits in their new roles. These might include Christmas Eve “sneak peeks” where parents can arrange for their children to get a glimpse of Santa leaving the house, putting the packages under the tree, or a “tuck in” where Mrs. Claus reads the children a bedtime story and tucks them into bed.
“This year, we are just figuring out what we want to do,” Susie adds. The couple has a 13-month-old grandson and is looking forward to sharing their new roles with him and having their son and daughter-in-law help perpetuate the Santa story. Inspired by ideas at Santa Academy and because Susie worked as a special education teacher, she hopes as Mrs. Claus to work with children with special needs. Don hopes as Santa to initiate a little notebook where he can write down prayer requests for children who may have just lost someone in their family, had a family member go to jail, or had a pet die.
“Interestingly enough, when our son, Matt, was young, we robbed him of the joy of having Santa Claus. We told him that there wasn’t a Santa. We had just become Christians and you know, we just thought it was kind of a mixed message,” comments Susie.
The couple’s feelings have changed since those early years and they both look forward to a new tradition with their grandson.
After all, as Charles W. Howard, Founder of the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, Michigan said in 1937, “He errs who thinks Santa enters through the chimney. Santa enters through the heart.”