If you have ever believed in Santa Claus, meeting Raymond Tremblay might leave you thinking he is the real deal. Beyond the requisite blue eyes and authentic beard, there is a feeling that surrounds this 71-year-old gentleman, making you want to draw close, confide and seek comfort.
For almost a decade, Raymond has served as Santa at the CF Rideau Centre. He claims to park his sleigh and reindeer at Ottawa’s International Airport, and ride an OC Transpo bus into town with his suit concealed in a small suitcase. Children inquiring about the whereabouts of his legendary transportation mode are told that the partial glass roof of the Rideau Centre makes attempting a landing far too risky.
Raymond, a Franco-Canadian Métis, hails from Timmins, Ontario and is the youngest of thirteen children. He grew up in a three-bedroom house with outdoor plumbing. Raymond’s parents ran a bustling general store and his mother played Mrs. Claus at the church. When asked how he remembers Christmas as a child, Raymond sighs, “Oh it was wonderful. Our large family gathered for a party with tourtiere, sugar pie and attendance at midnight mass. My first gifts were fruit, candy and a little grey toy mule. The next year my brother and I received matching toy trucks. We were poor but happy.”
It is very clear that family and love have molded Raymond into the ideal St. Nick. To see his blue eyes twinkle, ask about his two boys, their wives and adored grandsons. For a signature jolly laugh, ask him to tell the story of when his sister Della fell down the outhouse. If a rosy-cheeked blush is what you seek, bring up Louise, the love of his life.
Raymond’s professional choices have also prepared him well to fill Santa’s boots. After deciding that the priesthood was not his calling, he received a masters degree in social work from Carleton University, and worked with the Children’s Aid Society and in mental health settings for many years. He first played Santa while working at Ottawa’s Shepherds of Good Hope and has also suited up for Canada Post, The Humane Society and private functions. His skills as a published writer and poet make his ability to connect palpable.
After chatting at length with Raymond, one can conclude that for many, Santa is an oracle to the possibility of receiving magic. While children still ask Santa for tangible items, such as toys, dolls, electronics and even a train for a loved pet rat, Raymond has noticed a shift in the past few years towards asking for things that cannot be bought. He shares warm stories of a young woman wanting better heart health for her mother, students wishing for world peace, a son asking for his mom to find true love, and many requests to bring poorer families a better Christmas.
Raymond also remembers with a laugh a sassy 81-year-old woman who plunked down on his lap and said, “Santa, my husband recently passed away. Could you bring me a new man?”
The delights of playing Santa include meeting international students from different cultures, races and religions, and seeing the same children return year after year. Memorable meetings with Ottawa’s Mayor Jim Watson, Max Keeping, former Cabinet Minister Peter Mackay and his human-rights activist wife Nazanin Afshin-Jam, have all been documented in cherished stories and photos.
Although most love a trip to see Santa, some children can become frightened or reluctant once they arrive. Raymond encourages parents and caregivers to let kids decide how close they wish to come, and assures them that Santa has a few tricks for getting that special photo without upsetting little ones. One of his favorite and trademark poses shows him feigning sleep while holding a napping newborn.
Raymond believes that his treasured role of playing Santa is God’s way of giving him a gift. His love of Christmas also goes deeper than his love of snow, winter and beyond a tireless taste for candy canes. “For me, Christmas is a time of magic and of mystery. It is a holiday that is not necessarily about giving and receiving, but instead about sharing and celebrating the birth of Christ.”