Local Santas talk about their serious seasonal responsibilities

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published November 30, 2016

 A recent graduate of Midland’s world-renowned Santa Claus school, Riley is ready to take on holiday parties across metro Detroit.

A recent graduate of Midland’s world-renowned Santa Claus school, Riley is ready to take on holiday parties across metro Detroit.

Photo by Donna Agusti


METRO DETROIT — Patrick Riley, of Madison Heights, is a recent graduate at 67 years old.

But his commencement ceremony didn’t involve a cap, a gown or a diploma. 

Instead, there was a fur-trimmed hat, shiny black boots and a scroll filled with names — some naughty, some nice.

“I went to the Santa school in Midland, Michigan,” said Riley. “The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School, and it’s been there since 1937. It’s one of the world’s finest Santa Claus schools. I was there Halloween weekend, and there were Santa Clauses and Mrs. Clauses from all over the world — Denmark, Norway, Hawaii.”

The globally known Santa institute has been training St. Nicholas stand-ins for generations. Each semester includes in-depth lessons on everything one needs to know to play the Christmas character, from religious and cultural origins to makeup application, beard maintenance and belly laughing. There’s even a field trip to a local store where the Santas can brush up on the season’s hottest toys.

“One of the things I found the most amusing was the parade (lesson),” Riley explained. “You’re in a large sleigh with nine reindeer, and Rudolph at the front, and you climb up 12 feet off the ground and you learn to play into it. You’re waving and moving around like it’s moving, and at the same time saying ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’”

Riley hasn’t booked a mall gig playing Santa Claus with his newly certified skills, but he’s excited to make appearances around town in the famous red suit.

“I really like the children,” he said. “I like the children and the adults whose children are grown now. I like to remind them about the spirit of Christmas and giving, just making them happy and talking a few minutes with each person individually. Giving them a few brief moments back in their childhood and that happiness they had around Santa.”

Over in Utica, Jim McGrail takes one day off each year from being the city’s attorney to step into the role of Santa Claus.

“I’d say I’ve been probably doing it for close to 13 or 14 years,” said McGrail. “It really started when my mom, who was city clerk, said they needed someone to be Santa (for the tree lighting ceremony). And that was it. I enjoy doing it each year.”

McGrail admitted that he doesn’t have official Father Christmas credentials like Riley, but he’s confident in his Santa prowess — he’s passed the test with some very tough adjudicators.

“Other than getting dressed up, no, I don’t do a lot to get into character. I wish I could blame my waist on preparing to be Santa,” he said with a laugh. “But I do have two boys myself. My oldest son has probably sat on my lap in costume about eight times without realizing it was me. Especially with them, I try to make my voice a little different. My youngest wasn’t fooled. He could tell it was me from a distance. But he’s terrified of Santa and he didn’t want to sit on my lap even still.”

When dressing up as the big man, you’re not exactly getting the credit you deserve for a successful day at the office. After all, doing a good job playing Santa Claus means you were able to convince little onlookers that you’re the real thing. 

And the pay isn’t all that great either: There’s likely no pension, unless you count memories saved for a lifetime. So, why do it?

“I think what I truly enjoy is the setting we have here in Utica,” McGrail said. “Even though it’s amongst all these big communities, everyone knows everyone here and it’s a different atmosphere. It’s just a lot of fun to be involved, not just as an attorney but socially.”

Riley agreed that the reward is measured in smiles.

“I love those squeaking babies, and I love talking about Christmas and reminding them that it’s not about the gift or what you’re receiving. It’s about what we’re giving to each other: the closeness of family and friends and the happiness we share when we’re together.”