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Santa University: Inside the school for aspiring St. Nicks

NEW YORK — I hate holiday crowds. The one person I know who hates them more is my younger brother. The only reason we found ourselves braving the chaos of the mall that Christmas five years ago was my mother.

It’s her favorite holiday, and all she wanted was a picture of her kids with Santa Claus. I was 19 and he was 17. But off we went.

We expected a long line, screaming children and frazzled parents — and we got them. But then there he was: A red-suited, rosy-faced, bearded Santa. And, as it turns out, a graduate of a special school that turns average Joes into St. Nicks.

After all, anyone can put on a red suit and a white beard and call himself Santa. The pros know it takes more than looks alone.

That’s where Noerr Programs comes in — a company that specializes in holiday productions. They build the sets, take the photos and provide Santa himself for malls around the country.

The company makes sure its Santas are up to snuff by sending them to Santa University, a four-day boot camp for aspiring Kriss Kringles in Arvada, Colorado.

“The most important part of being a Santa is definitely the heart,” says company founder Judy Noerr. “If a Santa has the heart of a Santa, everything else can be cared for.”

If there’s anyone who can take care of everything else, it’s Noerr. As a child, she made and sold her own Christmas cards. When she got older, she danced in and eventually directed a production of “The Nutcracker.”

Santa University: Inside the school for aspiring St. Nicks

Then, in 1981, she combined her love of the holidays, her entrepreneurial spirit and an eye for production to found her company. Today, Noerr employs about 350 Santas for the holidays.

Every summer, about 70 of them train for the season at company headquarters, called — what else? — the Noerr Pole.

“People are amazed that there are four days’ worth of classes for Santa University, but it’s true,” she says.

The curriculum includes serious courses, like sign language and media training. But there are also lessons on the more physical aspects of being Santa: beard bleaching, beard shaping and dressing for success.

Santa University itself is a sight to behold. All of Noerr’s Santas are naturally bearded, so even in the sweltering August heat, these guys look the part. And if you think you can get them to break character, think again.

When I pulled up, in a red rental car, to the hotel where Santas stay during their training, a Santa standing outside complimented my color choice (“Very festive!”) and told me he hoped I had been good this year. This was before he knew I’d be joining him on his weekend of pre-holiday cheer.

Aside from taking classes, the Noerr Santas run toy drives, attend barbecues and practice caroling. But being a professional Santa isn’t all fun. The six-week season can be grueling, with long hours on set nearly every day until Christmas.

“You pretty much sleep, eat, and work,” says Rick Davis, a Santa from Duluth, Georgia. To accommodate the demands of the season, Davis relocates to his mall, 750 miles away in Orland Park, Illinois, every year.

“You want to stay focused so that you can be all that you can be when you’re on the set and be there for the children,” he says. “If you’re at home you allow too many other distractions. By traveling I feel like I can stay focused at what I’m doing.”

Noerr Programs doesn’t disclose what it pays its Santas but says it depends on experiences and where each Santa is placed.

Still, if you ask any of the graduates of Santa University, they’ll tell you they aren’t in it for the money.

“It’s more of a calling than it is a job,” Davis says. “If you can say anything every day to try to uplift a child and their family, then you go home at night with some accomplishment.”

Now looking at the photo of my brother and myself from our trek to see the Noerr Santa at our mall in New Jersey, you’d never be able to tell that we were miserable right up until we got to see the jolly old elf himself.

We bickered on the ride to the mall, the walk to Santa’s set and all through the line. But once we were each perched on an arm of Santa’s chair, our Grinchy grumbling melted into genuine smiles, warmed up by Santa Claus — a skill I know he honed at Santa University.