From orphan to volunteer to Saint Nicholas, Calgarian Ray O'Neil embodies the spirit of Christmas
Santa Claus — that ever-jolly chap who rides on reindeer and fraternizes with little people in pointed, green shoes — acts as a spokesperson for holiday giving. He breaks into childhood imaginations with unfathomable magic. He is retained in memory — even after belief in his existence is tucked away with the tinsel.
But on a chill November afternoon, in a Bowness coffee-shop, Santa Claus, or one of the many men who play Santa Claus every year, discussed his childhood in an orphanage, his work with street kids, addicts and prostitutes, and his first foray into the iconic red suit.
Before he became Santa Claus, friends, and family referred to the generous man as Ray O'Neil.
O'Neil grew up in Nanton, Alta. His parents separated when he was 10 years old, leaving his mother as the family provider. She travelled across Canada and the U.S. looking for work, so O'Neil and his younger brother were sent to stay at Woods Christian Home in Calgary.
"It was trying sometimes," O'Neil said. "We were independent in Nanton. But when we came to Calgary we were in moccasins."
"We weren't used to having anything regimented — to be in school at a certain time or place. To go to school in Nanton we were usually late, but in Wood's we couldn't be," he said.
If the boys stepped out of line, which was frequent at first, they were sent down the gauntlet. O'Neil said, "They captured you at night and walked you down the corridor blindfolded, hands tied."
O'Neil and his brother stayed at Wood's Christian Home for a year and a half before their mother quit her job. It was his experience in the boys' home that compelled O'Neil to strike out on his own when he was 17. "I spent so much time being told what to do that I didn't want anyone to tell me how to live anymore."
The "Trick joint" becomes "We Care Society"
His first volunteer experience was starting We Care Society with his friends Merv Lowie and Lee MacDonald. "We saw a lot of people downtown having difficulty finding a place to stay," O'Neil said.
We Care Society, led by 15 to 20 volunteers, acquired a property in Victoria Park — 601 Olympic Way — to house people with mental health issues.
The house they secured "was a trick joint. it was a terrible mess. For two months free rent, we fixed it up," O'Neil said.
"The house was full all the time. The only thing that shut us down was when the Stampede board came along and offered the property owner a bunch of money.
"Without the house, the volunteers soon dwindled and the project dissolved.
O'Neil then began his involvement with Bridging the Gap. Another property — this time in Bragg Creek — was acquired — this time to help get prostitutes off the street.
"The Hudson's Bay Company came in with clothing to give the girls. The chef from the Palliser Hotel came out to teach them cooking. And a secretarial school came out to teach them bookkeeping," O'Neil said.
To pay his own bills, O'Neil worked in the health and safety sector of various oil and gas companies — Aquitaine, Canterra and Husky.
"Oil and gas was really competitive," O'Neil said. "I did health and safety monitoring on rigs drilling for sour gas. I had gotten gassed a few times, which left me with a bit of short-term memory problems."
His venture as a professional Santa began in 2001 with a friendly wager among his We Care Society co-founders. "I along with two others, had grown a beard," he said. "We had a little contest to see who had the best beard and I won."
O'Neil's first job was booked at the behest of his friend — and professional Santa — Roy Benson. Benson put O'Neil in contact with a booking agent — a woman he referred to as "Mittsie."
The entertainment company dealt with actors, strippers and Santas.
"She had a job in the mall that she couldn't fill, so Roy asked me to go down and see," O'Neil said.
"I thought I might try this and see. I got the job. I've been Santa ever since."
But O'Neil prefers to stay out of the malls. He works private functions—getting his bookings through Just Kidding Entertainment.
The role of Mrs. Claus was played for years by his wife Vi O'Neil before she developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease four years ago. Mrs. O'Neil said, "He is a great Santa."
"The biggest challenge as Santa is my wife," Mr. O'Neil joked. His wife shot him a dirty look. He laughed, "No, just kidding. The biggest challenge is the parents with a screaming two year old who want a picture and all they end up with is a picture of a screaming child."
"You can tell if a kid is uptight," he said. "They want space because they don't like you. And I reach out to show my hand and we have a big high-five, or the knuckles."
He fist bumped the air, "They're going this way a lot more."
At home, in his Santa suit, he welcomed a young, long-time friend, Carisa Kahut, 7.
She hopped onto his lap and listed off her Christmas wishes. "I want an iPod, iPad and Squeakies," she said.
The friends hugged, took a picture and Kahut hopped down from his lap.
O'Neil had Christmas wishes of his own. "I'd like to see the world in better condition than it's in," he said. "I'd like to see more harmony in people. There's a lot of love out there, but it only comes out at Christmas."
He will continue to fulfill his role as Santa for many years to come. "Every year it gets harder to get out of bed. I was going to not do it last year and not do it this year," O'Neil said. "But I'll probably do it again, and again, until the suit wears out."
- By JESSICA CLARK