You could call Bill Wilson a Santa with a sheepskin.
The Beloit man proudly displays his diploma from the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School, where he and 104 others in his class recently graduated after hands-on training with children, in a toy shop, and on a sleigh.
Whether you call him Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas or the jolly soul from the North Pole, there is one thing Wilson knows about Santa Claus.
"Santa Claus is in the heart," Wilson said. "Santa has a selfless spirit. I don't want anything for myself. If you don't have money or a gift to give, you have to give of yourself."
Wilson has been giving of himself. He has the white beard and jolly personality to make a good Santa, and he has used those attributes to make the holiday season brighter. He has made visits as Santa Claus to the domestic violence shelter in Rock County, and he even has set up a portable stove along the railroad tracks to serve hot soup and sandwiches to the homeless.
But he wanted to take his personal spirit of Santa to a new level, so he hopped in his car and drove to Midland, Mich. to the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School.
Wilson explained, Charles W. Howard was the standard Santa featured in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade from 1948 through 1965. He established his first school dedicated to teaching other Santas in 1937.
To Howard, being Santa was more than just throwing on a red suit and a white beard. Wilson said he disliked it when he heard of or saw Santas smoking or acting inappropriately on break. So, his Santa Claus school stressed areas such as personal hygiene, nutrition and demeanor.
The school also required each student to spend a little time in a woodworking shop, making toys. Wilson made a top as his project, and he demonstrated it at the Beloit Daily News during a recent visit.
The Santa students also had to spend some time with the toughest Santa critics - kindergarten students.
Wilson even learned sign language so he could communicate with hearing impaired children and ask what they wanted for Christmas.
When Wilson first arrived at the school, shortly after registration, he along with the other students received a set of red suspenders with the Charles W. Howard Santa School logo on them. After that, it was time to hit the books, board the sleigh and dig into everything Santa.
"We didn't go up there to play," Wilson said.
The students went over the marketing and presentation aspects of being a good Santa, but they also dug into the different legends and folklore involving the jolly old elf.
Wilson said the legend of Santa Claus begins in fourth century Greece with Saint Nicholas of Myra who was known for his generosity. In Germany Saint Nicholas Day is celebrated Dec. 6 and children in Holland put out their wooden shoes by the fireplace and find little gifts in them in the morning.
The general description of the appearance and demeanor of Santa Claus comes from the yuletide poem, "A Visit From St. Nicholas," by Clement Moore. In the famous poem, Saint Nicholas is described as a rosy cheeked, jolly fellow. "He had a broad face and a little round belly that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly," the poem notes.
Now that Wilson has his diploma and a new knowledge of what Santa should be, he is preparing for the holiday season. He said he played Santa on and off over the years, but he has a new inspiration to be Santa on a more regular basis.
"Santa doesn't live in any one person, but in the heart," he said.