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    Republican-American of Waterbury | October 10,2010
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    A three-day Santa university program concluded with a group photo last weekend on the steps of the Yankee Pedlar Inn and a parade to Christmas Village, in downtown Torrington, Conn.
    TORRINGTON, Conn. — In a conspiratorial whisper, Kyla Coughlin, 5, proclaimed with certainty: The man in the cloak with the fur-lined hood, one of nearly two dozen Santas gathered at Carl Bozenski’s Christmas Village in Torrington, was the “real” Santa Claus.

    “’Cause I just know,” she said. “His beard is a little bit longer.”

    Coughlin’s grandfather was one of the portly bearded men in red suits who paraded to the local landmark from The Yankee Pedlar Inn, where some had spent three days in a “Santa University of New England” program and “Secrets of Santa” seminar organized by Charlie Allen of Rocky Hill and Bill Dexter of Georgetown in Fairfield County.

    The event, held the first weekend in October, drew nearly two dozen Santas and two Mrs. Clauses from around New England and beyond. Allen said the original plan was to hold the conference in Hartford, but he was quickly convinced to move west when he heard Christmas Village was available.

    Timothy Patrick Connaghan, who runs the International University of Santa Claus in California, made the trip to teach, drawn by Allen’s request and also by the village that has helped area families celebrate Christmas for decades.

    “There are only a few communities in the United States that have something of this level, this caliber,” Connaghan said of Christmas Village. The day brought out one of the village’s builders, Paul Freedman, who held court to a rapt group of Santas as he told the story of how the annual Christmas tradition came to be.

    Allen, 81 and spry, a retired Hartford police officer, youth counselor and wedding videographer, has welcomed children to his arms for eight years. “Being a policeman, I had such a power of influence,” Allen said, adding his career brought many opportunities to “change lives, save lives.”

    As Santa, Allen hands out glossy photo cards with messages on the back urging children to: “Finish what you start; Be polite at all times; Do your homework; Always obey your parents; Be helpful to others; Clean your room; Be honest.”

    “I teach life lessons,” Allen said.

    Hotel guests and bystanders stopped to watch as the class assembled for a group photo on the steps of The Yankee Pedlar Inn, red suits shining in soft October sunshine.

    Connaghan’s resume includes 42 years of Santa appearances — in films such as “It’s Complicated” and “Elf Academy,” on television programs including “The Tonight Show” and in commercials for Oreo cookies and Target stores during last year’s holiday season alone. He has also been the official Santa Claus of “The Hollywood Christmas Parade” from 2004 to 2010.

    Day one of his two-day class covered basics including cleanliness and how to talk to children. The second day focused on the business side of running a North Pole operation, including details on how to organize a schedule, obtain insurance and perform background checks.

    A lot has changed since Charles W. Howard founded America’s first Santa Claus School in 1938, Connaghan said.

    Sweeping staircases have been replaced by flat North Pole sets, compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Liability insurance is a must, just in case of a slip from the lap. And those flat sets give children a closer look, time to gaze with a more critical eye for details like a tiny strap attached to a beard.

    “Today’s children are on the ball,” Connaghan said.

    If he’s challenged by a tot who questions whether he’s “real,” Connaghan may pat his chest or tug on his beard and reply, “Wait, wait, wait ... I feel real. What do you think?”

    Being Santa is a job with many rewards, the Santas agreed.

    Tears came to organizer Bill Dexter’s eyes as he recalled a hospice visit with a woman born in Australia who would die two days later. He offered to sing her carols, but she declined, as such songs were not popular in her homeland.

    Dexter happened to know the Australian folk song “On the Banks of the Reedy River,” and sang it for her.

    “Before I finished, she was crying,” Dexter said, his voice choking. “She said, ‘I never believed in Santa Claus before.”’

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