To meet Douglas Craig is to meet Santa Claus.
With a twinkle in his eye, and a belly full of laughs, it’s hard to picture Craig as anything but Jolly ol’ Saint Nick.
It’s a way of being that permeates Craig. Same goes for Anna Maria Schena, who plays Mrs. Claus alongside her husband.
Together they aim to go beyond simply acting the part—bellowing “Ho Ho Hos” at the mall—and instead making people believe they have been given a real experience of meeting the man in red.
“People say ‘do you enjoy playing Santa or dressing up?’ I say to be real clear, I don’t dress up as Santa and I don’t play Santa,” said Craig.
“No matter who, or how often, I’ll say real clear, ‘I am Santa.’ And it’s not to convince them, it’s also to state my position and my belief when I’m in that role.”
Sitting in his home in Capitol Hill, bedecked in red pajamas and a Santa hat, he presents the image of a man preparing to go and deliver a seasonal joy that only comes from authenticity.
Leaning over, he outlines his beliefs, and his history of what it means to transform into the literal embodiment of Christmas spirit.
And it’s a journey that was a difficult one for Craig: from a hard upbringing to becoming a one percenter biker gang member, to drug abuses and divorces. To the reluctance of accepting his look, taking professional Santa classes, and then fully embracing more than just the suit and the attitude of Christmas.
“I mean, you know, to have the opportunity to be able to step into a place where people are willing to be vulnerable and to be able to bring some joy and peace and hope and just some all in magic of itself,” he said.
“You know, that’s magic in a different way, and that’s what Santa does, you see.”
Moonshine to sunshine
The way Schena describes Craig, is a man who has embraced his inner child, while at the same time someone who wants to positively impact the lives of those he meets.
“Doug has an enthusiasm within,” she said.
But the inner child version of Craig who brings forth the Christmas spirit in Kensington on weekends, or at the many private parties during the season that hire the pair as Mr. and Mrs. Claus, is a distant child from who Craig was growing up in Exshaw, Alberta.
At age 14, Craig had his first brush with the law after stealing his father’s homemade moonshine, and then selling it watered down at school.
“It was one of those things that you know, not a big deal, but it’s my first encounter with the police,” said Craig.
His last was at age 30, when he was arrested and charged with trafficking. In between, Craig estimated that he had encounters between 500 to 600 times, in four provinces and two states.
“Which is you know, maybe more than the average person,” he joked.
During that time he became a member of the Kings Crew outlaw motorcycle gang until 1979, when his life in his own words, “fell apart” after being busted for drug trafficking. He had at the same time, been working as a corporate executive in the relatively free-wheeling days of 1970s Calgary.
“I lost my job and I had a $1,500 week cocaine habit, and was drinking,” he said remorsefully.
“The change was motivated when they were taking me to jail that day, and my three little girls 3, 4, 5-years-old were standing on the doorstep crying, ‘don’t hurt our dad, don’t hurt our dad,’ and that caused me to start to shift.”
Craig went on to become a professor of accounting at SAIT in the early 1980s. By the late 1980s, after discovering the Centre for Spiritual Living, became an ordained minister and moved to Red Deer to found a New Thought church.
Overcoming mountains both physical and metaphorical
In the 1990s, Craig suffered a burnout that once again put his life into turmoil.
“Burnout, oh man, that was bad, and it was… I lost everything,” he said.
“I had mismanaged things and something had happened inside of me, and I was getting panic and anxiety attacks and I ended up bankrupt. And for the first time in my life, I had to rent a room because that’s all I could manage.”
He called it a humbling experience as an instructor and as a minister. He returned to the mountains, doing 73-days of hiking and putting in 765 kilometres.
Craig reconnected with the mountains, doing mountaineering training on glaciers and on mountainsides at age 49 with people half his age.
“I was guided when I was seeking guidance about what I needed to do to pull myself out of things,” he said.
And over this time, from the 70s, 80s, and 90s he had three divorces that he takes the blame for.
But it was after working as an instructor again at SAIT in 1999, that Craig met the woman who would become his wife, Schena, in an elevator on campus.
“Total end of the opposite spectrum here: She’s Italian Catholic from Quebec, and attended boarding school with the nuns for several years, and never been drunk—still never never been high, never been in trouble with the law,” he said.
“But we arrived at the same place at the same time on the spiritual path.”
She said that regardless of his exterior then, the history of bullying and intimidation, the life that Craig lived, that wasn’t the person she saw
“He’s got blue eyes. I like blue eyes. And I looked a little bit deeper and I said ‘God you’d make a good Santa.”
Settling in on being Santa
Even before Craig left the motorcycle gang, he said that he played Santa on occasion for friends and neighbours, as it gave him a sense of comfort to be treated differently than the man he was at the time.
Schena said she pushed him to pursue being Santa full time, but for his part, Craig resisted the idea. He even went so far as to shave his beard off for charity.
At a head shaving event, he was able to raise more than $3,000 for a good cause by shaving what had become a full white beard.
“I couldn’t see him without a beard. I couldn’t. And I was crying when I was shaving him, and when everything was going on I didn’t recognize him—he wasn’t my husband,” she said.
Sitting next to her husband, Schena laughed when describing how he was resistant to growing it back. Growling in Craig’s voice, she said “I don’t want to know about this. Get out of here. I’m not growing my beard. It’s too hot.”
“OK, fine,” she replied.
She eventually gave Craig a book by Victor Nevada, the founder of Santa School, promoting the idea to him.
By 2013, Craig had changed his mind, and in 2014 both he and Schena joined the Santa school.
“He started growing the beard again… and then we decided to go to Santa school,” said Schena.
In 2015, they began doing the odd Santa gig while establishing themselves as fixtures of the holiday season.
“All the while she’s there getting me prepped with all the looks, and all that kind of stuff,” said Craig.
For her part, Schena said that all of that made her “earn her wings.”
The couple met another professional Santa duo through the school, and Craig eventually narrowed in on portraying the iconic version of Santa that would become beloved worldwide through the advertising of Coca-Cola. He eschews the sometimes more glamorous modern Santa suits with flourishes and gold and silver.
His is a simple, all-red suit with white trim. No distractions. Simply Santa.
Today, Craig said that although the Santa Claus business is a business, that isn’t what he is in it for.
“I don’t want a job. I’m not interested,” he said.
“I want the adventure and the experience of what I can create to help other people, and what I could create for joy for myself—this is a necessary part of participating in the world.”
The real Santa
The life of being Santa, said Schena, is not just the few months of the year, but the entire 365 days.
“Santa Claus is just not a certain time of year. Santa Claus is all year round,” she said.
“The attitude, the kindness, the patience, the understanding—everything, you know—the giving and the receiving, it’s a way of life.”
Part of what makes the duo special is their ability to overcome the skepticism, and restore some of the magic of Christmas.
Craig describes this as fully committing to becoming Santa, and setting aside what it means to be himself while he’s in the suit. Before each outing, the pair meditate on what it means to be Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus.
“What we just do with go with him and we, we make the declaration that we are Santa and Mrs. Claus, and that we draw the highest and best of Santa and Mrs. Claus that has been created in the collective consciousness—in the minds and the hearts of the children, the parents and the grandparents—and we draw that through us and express it by means of us in our own unique and special way,” he said.
“We create a place where all can experience peace, prosperity, fulfillment, joy, hope, happiness, giving and receiving.”
And then they share that joy.
Craig described a recent encounter at a corporate party, where he decided to visit a man who was standoffish and alone. Together, they were able to reverse his opinion, with Craig exclaiming that the man said to him “you are the best Santa, you gotta be the real Santa.”
There is a patience when he describes the story, about spending time with a person as Santa, having the conversation and making them believe again.
“They’re so appreciative and so grateful. And the kids are happy, because that’s what it’s about,” he said.
“It’s all about using your gift and using your gifts in a positive way. And then trusting that that what you need to say for each one of them is different.”
He spoke about another common occurrence, where older children would call him fake in front of their younger siblings. Either through letting the kids tug his beard—entirely real—or through the empathy of his words, he reaches those kids by reminding them about what Christmas is about.
“What I say to him, ‘look, you know, you might not believe in Santa but your brother does, and don’t you want your brother to have a happy Christmas?'” Craig said.
“I said you could believe whatever you want, but don’t spoil it for him. In fact, you could say that you believe it and that’d even make him happier. ‘Wouldn’t you like to make your brother happier?'”
The true meaning of Christmas
Schena described it as putting that immaterial Christmas feeling into material form.
“That’s why we’re we’re able to do what we do,” she said.
It’s that magic, said Craig, that people end up connecting with.
“That’s what the parents see, that and the grandparents see. They see that suit and everything that’s going on. That doesn’t tweak anything except the magic that they had as a child, you see.”
Coming at it from the point of view of Santa, he said, isn’t about the spiritual or the religious—or even the cultural. Santa, said Craig, is above all of that.
“Pure and simple, Santa represents giving and receiving, and that’s one of the basic tenets of the basic philosophy of life,” he said.
He uses the example of how newcomers to Canada will often connect to Santa, despite not practicing the traditional Canadian Christmas.
And with a wry smile, Craig talked about the time he even played Santa for a 35-year-old Jewish woman, who asked him if Santa hadn’t visited her because she was Jewish.
“I said ‘dear, Santa doesn’t care what you are. Santa is much bigger than that.'”
“So either you didn’t ask, or you’ve been on the naughty list the whole time,” he laughed.
The real meaning of Christmas, he said, was to never give up on yourself. A message that despite his own journey, he continues to share with others.
“I remember one family that were very well-to-do, used to buy very expensive gifts for their children, went bankrupt, and they had nothing before Christmas and they were devastated. And I told him you know you got the most precious gift of all that you can give: a gift of love,” he said.
“So believe in yourself. Don’t ever give up on yourself. And by the way, that ended up being the most precious and best Christmas that they’ve ever had, and that’s what money can’t buy.
“So that’s the most important thing. When it starts there, one can do that and believe in themselves.”