will never forget the magical moment he truly became Santa Claus. On a drizzly December evening in 2011 — just two days before Christmas — he left his Santa gig at a in Lawrenceville, Atlanta and drove to Grant Park, 30 miles away, to pay a very special home visit. At 8 p.m., Hyman, 71, hopped out of his car, adjusted his velvety red suit, and knocked on the front door of the Green family home — Bella, 4, opened up the door. With a shriek and a hug, she led him to the living room where her mom and dad, Katie and Chris, waited with her younger sisters, Farrah, 2, and Hallie, only 4 days old. The parents offered Hyman cookies and milk, and then, with tears in their eyes, handed their newborn daughter to Hyman for her first and only photo shoot with Santa Claus.
"Ho, ho, ho, little Hallie!" said Hyman, who has been suiting up as Santa at malls and businesses since 1970, as he cradled her in his arms and Chris snapped a photo. "Santa loves you very much." Less than 24 after Hyman held the newborn, she died on Christmas Eve, GolfHr.com confirms with Katie and Chris.
Hallie was born with , a condition in which a person has an extra chromosome 13. Most infants with the condition, like Hallie, don't live past their first week of life.
"I don't think any child should leave this world without knowing the love of Santa Claus and I felt honored to be with her in her final moments, just talking to her and holding her like I would any other baby," say Hyman, who rushed to be with Hallie the day he found out about her condition from a family friend. "Before I left, I sang 'Silent Night' to her and told her that her family loves her."
Hyman, who has visited with the Green family every year since Hallie's death, says he might not have known how to handle the incredibly tender moment, without proper training. And while there are dozens of Santa "schools" across the country teaching Santa etiquette, Hyman educates himself at Michigan's , the self-proclaimed "longest continually running" Santa Claus school in the world, which he has attended since 2003.
Every year at the famed Midland institution, Hyman brushes up on his Santa history, the art of toy-making, reindeer handling, flight lessons, and being a jolly old soul. Like Hyman, many of the CWH Santa and Mrs. Claus graduates go on to get hired at malls, retirement homes, schools, hospitals, and businesses.
A record 240 students attended in October of this year, according to Holly Valent, who took over the school with her husband, Tom, in 1987 and turned it into a non-profit.
"We keep it very traditional and set our standards very high," she tells GoodHousekeeping.com. "We're not a Santa business school, we're here to teach the heart and the spirit of Santa, Mrs. Claus, and Christmas."
Holly and Tom do so by offering an eclectic array of classes, workshops, and excursions taught by experts. Every year, a "wig master" is flown in from Tennessee to teach beard and hair maintenance. Local Midland actors give advice on appropriate Santa facial expressions and hand gestures. Professional makeup artists reveal helpful dos and don'ts when applying rouge to the cheeks.
The couple even recruit an expert from Washington D.C. to talk about communicating with special needs children. "We're giving our students training and opportunities to be the best Santa or Mrs. Claus they can be, and they're so grateful," Tom says. "Our focus is on teaching giving and love, which is what Christmas is all about."
Tom, a skilled woodcarver, teaches a unique toy-making class to his students, who work on their wooden items in "Santa's Workshop" on the school grounds.
"We throw a lot of information at our students and it's impossible to pick everything up," he says. "But at the school, you get a good feel for a wide variety of skills. Our whole goal is to make our students feel like they truly are in the North Pole."
The couple even keeps two "really sweet" reindeer, Comet and Blitzen, so students can study the animal's movements, noises, and smells.
A highlight this year, was a ride on the famous about an hour away in Owosso, Michigan. The train is most famous for its role in the 2004 Christmas classic The Polar Express.
"We all took a ride, while drinking hot chocolate," says Holly. "They loved the train ride and watching the steam. On the way there, we even showed some of the movie. It truly felt like we were on the Polar Express headed straight to the North Pole."
Tom started suiting up as Santa to entertain his own children when he was 25 years old, and Holly joined him later on as Mrs. Claus. He went on to play the role at community events in Michigan and was named dean of the CWH school in 1987, after years of attending himself. He says one of the questions he gets most from students is what to do when a child asks for something "impossible" during a visit with Santa.
"We get kids who ask for their parents to come back to life or to get out of prison or to stop dying from cancer, it's really tricky and it happens all the time," explains Tom. "But I believe in the power of prayer and I tell that child that Santa will say a prayer for that person. Then, I get out a little notebook and write down the name of the person I need to pray for. When I say my prayers that night, I get out the book and include them. It's a small gesture, but it's powerful coming from Santa, we teach that at the school."
First time attendee of Dallas, Texas, says he picked up new tricks of the trade — specifically, how to ask children questions and how to better display the spirit of Santa — at school this year.
He took those skills with him to Minnesota, where he worked at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, for eight days in December.
"CWH is like the Cadillac of Santa schools, we are given so much information on how to love and communicate with all kids," Jefferson Gamble, who made history as the first African-American Santa to work at the Mall of America last year, tells GolfHr.com "One of the most valuable lessons I learned is that Santa is a multicultural character and that anyone can play Santa as long as you have joy and a love of Christmas."
Lamar May, a Santa specializing in home visits and tree lightings, has been attending the Santa school for over a decade with his wife, who plays Mrs. Claus. He says picking up important tips from both Holly and Tom is the reason why they return to the school year after year.
"The most important thing I've learned is that you need to achieve the heart of Santa," says May. "You want to look the part, because if you don't look the part, the children will know and they won't believe. But it's how you portray the jolly ole' elf and show his heart to the children, show the spirit of Christmas and the season of love and giving, that's important and the real valuable thing to be grasped."
The Dallas, Georgia native says he'll be back in Michigan for school next year, without a doubt.
"It gets us energized for the new, upcoming season!" he explains. "It's the place we can assemble with other like-minded folks and prepare for being Santa to those we come in with all year long. It helps us keep our spirit and excitement for Christmas and Santa alive! It's truly a magical place."
Enrollment at the CWH Santa school is to any and all ages, for their October 11-13, 2018 session. And, you better sign up quickly, because there are only 200 spots available! per person and don't include travel, transportation, or hotel accommodations. However, one lunch and two dinners are provided.
"We can't wait to teach all our new Santas the trade! There are so many friendships and smiles that happen here, it's truly a unique experience," says Holly. "The joy is undeniable and, after graduating, everyone walks away with so much of that wonderful Christmas spirit."