CALGARY – A student's cellphone goes off in the middle of class.
"Sorry,'' he says. "That's my head elf.''
Some institutions of higher learning may not take kindly to that kind of disruption, but at Santa School the quip gets full marks, especially when a big part of the morning lesson is staying in character.
The Calgary-based school trains professional Santas and Mrs. Clauses for corporate events, private parties and malls during the holidays.
About two dozen pupils are seated at tables set up in a horseshoe shape at a suburban community centre on a sunny October morning.
Santa Clauses Bob Slocombe, left, Dan Dickison, centre, and Jeff Badyk listen to instructors at Santa School in Calgary, Alta., Friday, Oct. 21, 2016. (Photo: Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)
The hall is decked with tinsel and festive tchotchkes. Up front there's a spread of butter tarts, shortbread cookies, chocolate Santas and Tim Hortons coffee. A diffuser sends a nutmeg-scented vapour into the air.
Most of the students are men with Santa-like builds and beards – both rookies and veterans looking to brush up on their skills. There are a handful of aspiring Mrs. Clauses.
An improv performer leads games about thinking quickly should a child act out or lob a touchy question Santa's way.
There is also voice training with a professional baritone singer, a movement class with a dancer and lessons in beard care and proper donning of gay apparel.
The course ends with a class photo and students being granted their MSC – Master of Santa Claus – degrees.
Once the graduates have cleared police background checks, they're ready to be deployed.
"I don't want cookie-cutter Santas...I want you to be like snowflakes."
Jennifer Andrews – who refers to herself as Dean of Santa School, Head Elf or Auntie Claus – has been professionally training Santas for about a decade.
"Santa can't be everywhere all of the time. He's asked me to train his best regional representatives,'' she says.
Andrews caps each of the two-day courses at 25 students and holds several sessions a year. Tuition is $500 a person.
Many students have retired from the police or military, she says. She figures it's a way for them to continue to serve in a more lighthearted way.
Santa Clauses Brian Dore, left, and Tim Carlisle work on their improv technique during a class at Santa School in Calgary, Alta., Friday, Oct. 21, 2016. (Photo: Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)
"I don't want cookie-cutter Santas,'' she says in her opening presentation to students. "I want you to be like snowflakes.
"You're not all going to have big booming voices and that's OK. Don't have voice envy, beard envy, tummy envy.''
First-time student Jeff Badyk says he's looking for pointers on how to gracefully respond to the unexpected.
"The only thing with children that scares me is they're so honest and they're pure and you don't want to say something that will really affect them,'' says the 64-year-old retired oil and gas landman.
When Badyk's hair began to turn white two decades ago, kids started calling him Santa so he decided to embrace it.
He says he's still honing his Santa persona and aims to use the role to impart lessons about the importance of giving.
"This is a chance to teach a little good, I hope.''
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Lee Bradley, a professional opera singer, stopped in Calgary for two days between concerts in Beijing and London, where he lives.
He has crafted a cheeky character who goes by Santa Chris Nicholas.
"He likes to be really humorous,'' says Bradley. "All within good taste and family fun, of course.''
Bradley, a clean-shaven 33-year-old, says his transformation takes a good deal of makeup and phoney hair.
For Merrell Dickie, achieving the Santa look also takes commitment.
The real-estate agent and part-time actor is on his second run through Santa School, and says it takes three days at the salon to get his ginger hair and beard the right shade.
"Sometimes you get a sad child and sometimes that's where the listening comes in."
Dickie says listening is key for St. Nick.
"Sometimes you get a sad child and sometimes that's where the listening comes in.''
He recalls meeting one boy whose mother had recently died.
"He wasn't a very happy young man, but we got him to talk about it ... I actually gave him a lot of time.''