In upstate New York, in a town not far from Rochester, Charles Howard churned out batches of mall-slated Santas for nearly three decades in what would become the world's oldest school for aspiring St. Nick's. Equiped with $75 and five days to study with Howard (of Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade float fame), each would-be Santa emerged with his B.C.S. - Bachelor of Santa Claus. Taken for LIFE in 1961, these photos chronicle the arduous process Howard's students underwent in pursuit of the red suit. Although the academy relocated to Midland, Michigan in the mid sixties, it is still in operation today. Howard is no longer the instructor, but his words continue to carry the weight of a bowl full of jelly, “To say there is no Santa Claus is the most erroneous statement in the world. Santa Claus is a thought that is passed from generation to generation. After time this thought takes on a human form. Maybe if all children and adults understand the symbolism of this thought we can actually attain Peace on Earth and good will to men everywhere.”
Check out the entire collection of photos from LIFE's archives here.