Not many of the masses of people who celebrate Christmas closely associate Santa Claus with the birth of the baby Jesus, or Christianity in general. But for James and BettyAnn Regehr of Canora, it’s a connection which they are sharing at every opportunity.
Along with their helper dog Briar-Rose, the couple recently served as Santa and Mrs. Claus at the Drive By Santa on December 5, part of Light Up Canora COVID-style.
James said it was an extremely enjoyable experience, in spite of the pandemic restrictions.
“Everywhere we go, we bring smiles to people and we love brightening the days of others,” he eagerly shared. “The Drive By Santa was great! The fire department helped us climb up on the stage and climb off at the end - we could not have done that without help. It was wonderful to wave at everybody and shout out my ‘Ho, Ho, Ho, Merry Christmas” to people as they drove past and people in most cars shouted back saying ‘Hi’ to Santa and wishing us a Merry Christmas too. We also interacted briefly and directly with the organizers and emergency crews, including Brandi from the town office and the two lady firefighters, so that was great too. Maybe next Christmas we can have more direct personal contact.”
Regehr said their first experience at portraying Santa and Mrs. Claus took place back in 1993 at a “Christmas in July” event with a church youth group. But they didn’t do anything further with the idea until about a year ago, after a serious health scare.
“It was in February of 2019 that I ended up in the hospital and almost died due to heart failure.” he recalled. “My arms became so weak that I couldn’t even lift them enough to shave - so I simply stopped shaving and pretty soon my beard had grown enough that I started looking more and more like Santa. Things just started falling in to place for us to do some Santa work. We went to Melody Manor in Yorkton, a long term health care facility, and we went to Dr. Brass School and a bunch of smaller places too and everywhere we went, we were very well received! We started dressing up and going out without any specific setting in mind, just to spread some Christmas spirit. We even continued after Christmas in spring, summer and fall once in a while - as COVID allowed. In fact, our Santa work is also now registered as a charity with Canada Revenue Agency so we can issue tax receipts for donations.”
One of their main goals is to maintain spontaneity to go wherever they choose, dressed up as the Clauses to spread Christmas cheer. At some point he hopes to be able to acquire an autoharp as part of their ministry.
“I would like to be able to play music to accompany us singing carols in parks or in long term care homes or wherever. We also would like to be able to visit every privately owned, licensed long term care home in Saskatchewan to bring the residents some cheer.”
Regehr is keenly aware that Santa Claus is not usually associated with the story of the birth of the baby Jesus, or Christianity in general. But he is working at changing that perception.
“Because Santa is kind of the leading authority on gifts, I have developed a sermon presentation that I entitle ‘God’s Greatest Gift’ that I can do in church services while dressed up as Santa. I have done it once already now, right here in a church in Canora,” he reported.
“According to the Book of Luke 2.14, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, angels appeared to shepherds and gave the message of ‘Peace on Earth and Good Will to all.’ This is part of why Jesus came - to help us live in peace with one another and to help us to do good to one another. Doing our Santa ministry brings smiles to people and both shows and inspires people to show good will to others.
“There is one other very significant thing that we can do in connection with Jesus and Christianity in general. Who in this world but Santa is able to ask complete strangers, ‘Have you been good?’ And if people answer truthfully, they will have to say that they have not been as good as they could have been. Then Santa is not judgemental but tells them that it’s not too late to change their ways. Santa can appeal to every person to live a better life and show good will to more people. Back in the New Testament, Jesus preached repentance for forgiveness of sins. Repentance means admitting you have been bad, and to be sorry, and to change your ways to live a better life.”
Regehr said he first felt a strong calling to vocational ministry when he was in university, with the goal of becoming a doctor. But he answered the call and attended Briercrest Bible College, later earning a Ph.D. in Biblical studies from Cambridge Graduate School. He has served as a church pastor in a number of communities in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. As “James the Padré” he has hosted a program on a Yorkton radio station with a focus on Bible study.
The Regehrs moved to Canora in December of 2019.
“The people are very friendly and it’s a great place to live,” said James. “I love hearing our neighbours fire up their “hogs” (Harley Davidson motorcycles) and drive around. We look forward to getting to know all of our neighbours better. People seem very willing to help us out when we need help and we want to be there for others whenever there is something we can do too.”
Even though he and Betty Ann have dealt with a variety of health issues, they have not lost their enthusiasm for life.
“After complications from a very bad reaction to medication, I experienced some kind of brain damage that has affected many things including my sense of taste and sleep patterns. I get nightmares fairly frequently, tremor episodes, and my emotions go haywire. For example, for no reason at all, I might just start crying uncontrollably, I can have difficulty concentrating, difficulty speaking, and the list goes on. I also have arthritis in both legs making walking very difficult. I need to use a wheelchair more and more.”
Their dog Briar-Rose has become a very important part of their lives.
“Among other things, she warns me in advance of tremor episodes, she wakes me at night if I have a nightmare and she helps me stay more in control of my emotions,” he said gratefully. “She also helps me rise when seated, helps me keep my balance when walking, alerts others if I need assistance and, of course, is a wonderful friend!”
Like almost everyone else, Regehr’s day-to-day life has been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I have really missed going on my daily trike rides. I have a special adult tricycle that I love riding around with Briar-Rose at my side. I hope I will be able to start riding again soon.”
The Regehrs have learned to take life one day at a time, and would like to see the Santa ministry develop into something which would allow them to earn a livelihood.
“BettyAnn and I are on the SAID program (Sask Assured Income for Disabled). BettyAnn has M.S. (Multiple Sclerosis) and it provides enough living allowance to survive on the basics. By the end of each month, our bank account is empty so our plans are just to try and use what time and abilities we have to make this world a better place, one smile at a time - serving the Lord where we are!”
No matter the obstacles in their way, Regehr has maintained the ability to approach life with a smile.
“It’s always been a dream to go to Fiji. I like to tell people that no matter what the question is, the correct answer is probably Fiji,” he concluded.