Who was Santa Claus? And who are all those Santas in malls and parades? Becoming Santa traces the history of Santa Claus and explores the phenomenon of the full-bearded Santas who work the holiday.

When Jack Sanderson–full disclosure, someone I have known for almost a decade–loses his holiday spirit after the deaths of his mother and father, he discovers a photo of his father dressed as Santa for a neighborhood party, and decides to maybe try being Santa for a season. He already has the build and beard, then a pair of kids came up to him in a store and called him Santa, so why not? One thing Jack learns at Santa school: Never call children “kids.”

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa school, a weekend of learning the right way to say

Ho, ho, ho!

and how to handle tough requests from kids children, like a job for daddy.

His beard bleached white, Jack, whose experience as an actor and comedy writer serve him well, aces his Santa instruction.  And Professional Santa School of Denver’s Susen Mesco, a genuinely Kris Kringle-obsessed trainer, prophesies that Jack has the potential to be one of the top Santas in the world. For Jack, becoming Santa is an experiment, a way for him to reconnect with people and lift his depression, not really a career move. Or so he thinks.

As director Jeff Myers follows Jack on his holiday odyssey, we also learn the history and development of Santa as a cultural institution, one that began with a real St. Nicholas, born in what is now Turkey in the third century. His name in Greek, Nicolaos, translates to “of the people,” fitting because, as the story goes, Nicolaos was born into a wealthy family and after his parents died, he decided to follow Jesus’s words, selling what he owned and giving it to the poor. The veneration of Nicolaos moved to Europe and became especially prominent in Northern Europe, traveling to America with immigrants who also brought with them the tradition of the Christmas tree. One thing that was left behind was the legend St. Nicholas’s helpers, the German Krampus, a devil who punishes bad kids children; and the Dutch Zwarte Piet, who is still celebrated in the Netherlands, with thousands dressing as medieval servants in black face, a practice that is decried as racist.

Who knew Santa played a part as a propaganda tool for the Yankees during the Civil War? Or that there is a Civil War Santa who dresses in the the specific Civil War garb created by illustrator Thomas Nast? Nast is the man responsible for our modern interpretation of St. Nick, which was furthered by the Coca Cola company when they began using Santa in ads over 75 years ago.

Jack volunteers to be Santa on a holiday train ride, posing for photos with several hundred kids children, and then visits Quincy, MA where he works a parade and several other community events. And along the way, something miraculous happens. Jack starts to become Santa, a transformation that the many other Santas in the film experience.