Santa smiles all the way through schoolIf you don’t have children, you may not realize the gift Hudson gets every year during this season. Santa arrives in Hudson to the delight of children and parents alike, and he is no ordinary Santa.
By: Margaret Ontl, Hudson Star-Observer
If you don’t have children, you may not realize the gift Hudson gets every year during this season. Santa arrives in Hudson to the delight of children and parents alike, and he is no ordinary Santa.
He is practically the real deal and has been arriving by sleigh or other contemporary means for 28 years. Kelley Galleries and Lavender Thymes have sponsored him for 23 of his 28 years.
“It’s been really cool,” said Tom Bethke, who began his 28th year as Hudson’s Santa on Friday night. “It has gotten to the point where some of the children are children of children who visited me. I recognize many of them; some I know by name and others I recognize their faces.”
“The kids down here are really special, very polite, just really good kids,” said Bethke. “I have saved every letter they have given me.”
Since Bethke receives about 150 a year it is quite a collection.
“I always ask what they want for Christmas,” said Bethke. “However, the first rule is to never promise them. I always ask if I can surprise them.”
Taking on the role of Santa is more than just a weekend gig for Tom Bethke. After seeing a segment on the CBS Sunday Morning Show featuring the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School, Bethke’s wife, Linda, knew she had found just the right birthday present for him.
On Oct. 8 Bethke and Linda traveled to Midland, Mich., where he attended the three-day school, founded in 1937 by Charles Howard, who was the first Santa for R.H. Macy.
“He got engrossed in playing Santa and started the school to teach people the right way to play Santa,” said Bethke.
“When I got there, it was an experience that I wouldn’t want to miss again,” said Bethke, who has already reserved a spot for next year. “I didn’t stop smiling for the rest of the week after walking through the hotel lobby filled with guys dressed in red, most of them sporting fluffy white natural beards.” Out of the 70 attendees only three, one of them Bethke, had what they call “retractable beards.”
“Most of us have custom-made suits, which we did not bring with, but everyone wore some form of red every day of school,” said Bethke.
“It was the most amazing experience I have ever had,” he added.
The school included classes on almost every aspect of being Santa, including the history of the figure of Santa, caring for your beard, storytelling techniques, sign language, general health tips, how to promote yourself, do hospital visits and work with special-needs children.
The school also included a segment on a radio talk show where they took turns fielding questions from ”children” who were actually their fellow classmates.
A big highlight was flight school. The group was taken to a warehouse — inside was a parade float featuring all nine reindeer and a sleigh.
“You got up in the sleigh,” said Bethke. “Everybody had to do it. As you grabbed the reins, the sleigh and the reindeer went up in the air. The biggest smiles broke out on their faces — you wouldn’t believe it. You could see it in their faces. It was something really hard to explain, but you could feel the wind in your face.”
In addition to hearing a motivational speaker, the group took field trips. The first one was to Toys R Us, where they were briefed on the hottest toys for the season and what items they could expect to hear about from the children. A second trip was to Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, billed as the world’s largest Christmas store.
The attendees came from wide and varied backgrounds including a Lutheran minister, UPS driver, school teachers, an actor, CEOs, small business owners, auto workers and a CPA. Most of them were retired and many had been Santas for less than five years.
“These guys in this school take the job of playing Santa very seriously,” said Bethke. “It is not frivolous. You are meant to be the best Santa you can be, whatever it takes. We had one from Nome, Alaska, and some from Disney World. It is considered very serious business.
“I have always loved playing Santa but seeing all these guys who all feel the same way was amazing,” said Bethke. “It is a very important part of my life and what I do overall. Something very special happened at the school. It distilled how important playing Santa is to me. It was just very special and I have never met a nicer group of people.”
For most of the 70 Santas, the schooling was like a tune-up to get ready for the season.
“I walked into where they had the school and it was like home,” said Bethke, who kicked off his season Friday night with Light Up Night. Bethke created the new display in the band shell and rebuilt the sleigh featured at Kelley Frame and Fine Art Galleries.
While Bethke and Santa are not spelled the same, both words reflect the spirit of the Christmas season.
Santa arrives in Lakefront Park on Saturday, along with a few of his reindeer, around 1 p.m.