Santa Claus lives at the North Pole, and his "helpers" take up posts in crowded in shopping malls, but throughout this month, local families will be able to find Kris Kringle in a setting that is far more warm and inviting.

Chris Parada, executive director of Historic Palace Theatre, is returning to Christmas Cottage at Day Road Park to the delight of thousands of little girls and boys. This marks his tenth turn as the big man in red, in a cottage he built with help from his dad.

Parada said he started the local tradition to give families an alternative to the Santa Claus visits at busy department stores and shopping malls.

"I wanted to take the mall aspect out of families and children visiting Santa," Parada said. "It doesn’t have to cost anything. You don’t need the hustle and bustle of going to the mall."

Parada was also inspired by Charles Howard, an Albion native who became famous for his portrayals of Santa Claus.

Howard began portraying Santa Claus as a boy in a classroom play and continued the role in downtown Albion department stores, while also managing the chores on his farm. Howard's dedication to Santa inspired him to start the first-ever — and longest-running — Santa Claus School in his living room in 1937.

Department stores across the country sent their Santas to learn under Howard, who converted three barns behind his house into a Christmas Village in the 1940s. At its peak, Christmas Village attracted about 80,000 visitors per year, according to the Detroit Free Press.

By the late 1940s, Howard was portraying Saint Nicholas in the biggest venues in the country. He was Santa Claus in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade from 1948 to 1965.

The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School still operates in Midland, Mich., by a couple that has portrayed Mr. and Mrs. Claus for more than 30 years.

Parada, who grew up in Medina, learned Howard's story at an early age, when many children still expected Santa to come down their chimneys late on Dec. 24. As a young theater buff, he appreciated Howard's performance.

"I knew the secret early on. It didn’t bother me," Parada said. "It really fascinated me."

"I thought it was cool," he added. "This little apple farmer from Albion had this school and Santa Claus thing."

Over the course of a decade donning the red suit, Parada has learned some rules of the trade and honed his craft.

"You don’t promise a kid anything. You don’t know their story, their situation," he said. "My goal is just to be their friend."

Parada expects about 10,000 families to visit the Christmas Cottage this year. The cottage is open from 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursday and noon to 3 p.m. Saturdays, through Dec. 21. While admittance is free, families are encouraged to leave a donation, which will be used to maintain the cottage and purchase presents for families in need.

Children are encouraged to drop a letter in the mailbox to the North Pole. Every letter, if submitted with a name and address, will get a personalized response.

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