SPOILER ALERT: Don’t let grandchildren read this story!
Contrary to popular belief, Santa Claus does not live at the North Pole, nor is he an imaginary figure. The Jolly Old Elf is alive and well and living near the waterfront in Vancouver!
Roger Dahlquist is Santa Claus, at least for several weeks each year, and for nearly a decade has donned the red suit, grown his white beard out and helped spread the joy of Christmas.
“When you put that costume on you are a different person,” he says. “It’s like magic.”
Roger’s transformation into Santa started with a desire to visit Japan. “After retirement, I had a Japanese friend in the lumber business over in Hokkaido. I had been there a number of times,” he says. “When I retired, he came over here, and as I walked out the door at Telus, we went into a conference at the Bayshore Hotel, and I got into the lumber business, organizing, buying and custom cutting logs here to export to Japan. I did this for three years until their economy went downhill. I always wanted to go back there because it is a beautiful place and people are very nice. It is also a very expensive place to go to as I knew from past trips.”
In Japan, a friend told Roger, there were plenty of job opportunities portraying Santa; if Roger grew out his beard, he would be well suited for the role. Roger didn’t know where to begin. He wandered over to the children’s market on Granville Island and started making inquiries, where they told him they had already had a Santa Claus. The person they put him in contact with informed Roger that he needed to gain experience as Santa before going overseas. His first job was in the Brentwood Mall in Burnaby.
“On opening day, I had to go out on stage with a woman entertainer, doing ‘Ho Ho Ho’, nervous as hell,” says Roger. “Over time, it improved. I was there for the whole Christmas season that year.”
In a way, it’s ironic that Roger wound up as Santa Claus because he grew up without a great appreciation for Christmas. “I stayed on because I enjoyed it,” he says. “As a child, I grew up under poor circumstances and Christmas was not a happy time for me. Up until recently that has carried over and Christmas would come along and I would get sort of depressed. Through being Santa, it opens up a whole new opportunity to understand and enjoy the whole Christmas idea: the children, the parents, the buying of gifts, and the anticipation of waiting for Christmas day until they can open their gifts.”
Roger, at a year old, and his older sister moved to Burnaby with their single mother in 1939 after their parents split up and their father went off to war. The struggling young family never had much money. When he graduated from high school, Roger went straight into the Air Force. “I was there between the wars and I was very fortunate,” says Roger. “I learned a trade and was able to avoid any real hardship. I was a Comm Tech Air [Communications Technician Air], basically a radio repairman and tester.”
Roger was stationed in Ottawa and though they strongly advised him to sign on for three more years, he left the Air Force and lived it up in Ottawa: enjoying some good food and drink courtesy of a small inheritance he received from his father’s estate. “I spent it and acquired some expensive tastes I could no longer afford,” he says. “So, I signed on to work on the Distant Early Warning line [DEW line], a chain of radar stations along the Arctic coast as a radar technician because the high pay allowed me to support my newly acquired tastes.”
He spent seven of the next eight years at various stations, a different one each year. “I loved it. I found the Arctic a beautiful place to be, but there are no trees and no women,” says Roger. “I spent a lot of my youth up there, but I don’t regret it one bit. Finally, though, I decided I was up there long enough. It was time to get out. I came down to Vancouver and got a boring electronics job in Burnaby. From there, I went to work for BC Tel, which is now Telus. They were a very good company to work for. I retired after 26 years.”
While working for Telus, Roger used his skills as a handyman to repair a speedboat he purchased, which had gone down in a lake. His next big purchase was a 48-foot sailboat, called a sloop, which he lived on for 20 years. Roger and his wife, whom he met in 1980, spent countless hours on that sailboat travelling the coastal waters.
“We did plenty of sailing on the boat, pretty much every weekend. Now that we’re both retired we’re too busy,” he says with a laugh. “Our pleasure is to go out and anchor and spend a few days or a week. Years ago, we did a lot of sailing. Now, we just slow down, have some nice wine, nice food and overnight entertaining.”
Before he had the chance to take his Santa to Japan, Roger’s friend died, so he lost his motivation. Despite that, Roger continued being Santa year after year in Vancouver. “It’s like playing and I really enjoy it,” he says. “Very few people have the opportunity to play act but I do. I just love the children and primarily the parents. You call them over because you want them to hear what their child is asking for. Occasionally, you have a child who just absolutely knows you are Santa Claus and runs up and leaps at you, cuddling up under your chin. It’s great!”
Roger loves the magic the suit creates.
“It opens an opportunity to interact with people in a whole different way. When there isn’t too large a crowd, I enjoy going for a stroll around the mall interacting with people. They just love it. You can’t just do that out on the street, if you don’t have the costume on. If anyone did, they would be probably be arrested.”
Not everyone believes in Santa Claus, however, and sometimes this can be a challenge. One of the first times this happened, Roger was fortunate enough to be working at a place where he was equipped with a radio. The elves would ask the families a few basic questions and send the information ahead to Roger. “This one boy about 10 years old came up and told me I wasn’t Santa. I assured him I was but he would not believe me. Then I asked him about his brother and his dog, calling each by name. He called over to his mother with great excitement telling her that I really was Santa Claus.”
Roger, a.k.a. Santa, has met an amazing array of people over the years at different locations and parties; the youngest was a one-week-old premature baby and the oldest a 101-year-old woman. “It’s mostly the little ones, two and younger who cry,” he says. “It is amazing that the same children come back year after year. I get adults sit on my knee who say ‘we always took pictures with you, so I need one to go back to my mom in Ontario.’”
Unfortunately, there are downsides to the job as well. Roger recalls one little boy who had an enormous list of things he wanted, and after finishing his lengthy recitation of what he wanted, implored Santa to not give his sister anything. In addition to the tragically paralyzed, sick and autistic children Roger sees, he also occasionally deals with some very sad cases.
“There was this one gal who would be maybe 40 years old, who passed a note to me. I was trying to open it as she rushed away. The note said she needed a husband and a person to love. Then there is the child who has had a parent pass away and asks if you can’t bring them back. That is a very hard one to deal with.”
Most of the children ask for toys and video games and Roger always asks to ensure the video games are not violent ones. He is also pleased that many children tell him they don’t need any gifts because there are so many poor children in the world.
“Generally, they don’t ask for too much,” he says.
Some children want to know about the flying reindeer and how he can deliver presents all around the world in a single night. “An easy answer is that if you go up to the North Pole, every direction is south,” says Roger. “On Christmas Eve, when I go south, I go in every direction at once. Regarding the reindeer, I tell them about the magic beans that started in a little village north of Florence. One day, the reindeer got into the magic beans and after they did, they can fly almost like they were jet propelled.”
So now, every November and December, Roger undergoes a startling transformation. As part of the Christmas experience, he is able to help bring the joy of the season to so many others.
“I intend to do this as long as I can,” he says. “I can’t imagine a reason I wouldn’t carry it on. It is magic, it really is. I see it first hand.”
DECEMBER 2009 SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER AND LOWER MAINLAND
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