For years, brett maddox, a white-haired, white-bearded bed-and-breakfast owner in Manitou Springs, thought he made a decent Santa Claus. (He played the jolly man in red for friends and family and events at his B&Bs.) Then, on a friend’s suggestion in 2011, he attended Susen Mesco’s Professional Santa Claus School in Denver—and after a weekend of classes in everything from sign language to suit fitting, he felt he’d stepped straight out of Miracle on 34th Street. “I am Santa,” Maddox says, adding that Mesco’s classes helped him score lucrative gigs at country clubs and, this year, a Colorado Ballet Association fund-raiser. “There are a lot of guys running [around] out there with white beards, and they’re smoking a cigarette or drinking a beer,” he says. “Susen teaches you to be Santa Claus in every move you make.”

In the early 1980s, Mesco owned a Denver company that took souvenir photos at events. While working local malls, she heard supervisors complain about their bad Santas. A quick study revealed some tips, which Mesco compiled in a 10-page manual, that would improve performance: things like, “Don’t swear,” “Don’t flip anybody the bird,” and “Zip up your pants.” Within three years, her Santa-training business’ clients included 14 Denver-area malls. Mesco now enrolls about 500 tuition-paying students annually, making her school one of the largest Kringle colleges in the nation. And that doesn’t include the roughly 4,300 Santas she trained for Wal-Mart this year. Her pupils spend $850 (for two days in September) to $1,650 (11 added months of consultation and remote workshops) on tuition. Then there’s the $800 to $3,000 that Mesco Santas invest in beard maintenance each year.

In exchange, students get a scrutinizing instructor. Uttering the informal “k-word,” for instance, costs a quarter (it goes to charity). “My Santas say children,” Mesco says. Mesco’s placement service, American Events & Promotions, matches grads with home visits, 40-day mall jobs, corporate appearances, parades, fund-raisers, and photography studio gigs. (Mesco also staffs Larimer Square, Union Station, and other Denver Santa-seeking locations.) Part of the service includes connecting students with companies for background checks—because a clean red suit doesn’t always equal a clean rap sheet—and insurance policies in case Timmy takes a tumble during the lap dismount. And while Father Christmas remains eternal, even he has to adapt to the times. That’s why Mesco has updated her lesson plans to address contemporary issues like what to say when a parent is serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. Because it doesn’t matter if you’re naughty or nice; a Mesco Claus works hard to be good, for goodness’ sake.