By Bonny Van

The Catholic Commentator

Wearing a bright red shirt and pants, topped off with a green fleece jacket, Greg Oivanki walks into a Baton Rouge grocery with his wife Sarah who is pushing a grocery cart and checking out the produce. All around them, shoppers do double takes while store employees smile and talk about their behavior, naughty or nice, with this special customer, one who looks exactly like Santa Claus.

 

 

Greg Oivanki plays St. Nicholas, the Catholic saint, at a pancake breakfast fundraiser at Immaculate Conception Church in Denham Springs. The event raised money for students to attend the March for Life campaign in Washington, D.C. in January. Photo provided by Rozalyn Duplantis

“I told the guys I’d put in a good word for them but I think they made the naughty list this year,” smiled a supervisor as she walked by Oivanki as he stood by the dairy section.

“I’ll check it twice, tell them not to worry,” smiled Oivanki.

“My four-year-old has been very good,” the supervisor said as she walked past a second time. “I’ve been good.”

“Man, I’ve got four grandkids, they’ve all been good – even though I’m not,” laughed another employee stocking shelves down an aisle. “Take care of the babies, please!”

“No problem!” said Oivanki. 

With large expressive eyes, a turned up nose, ready smile and distinctive laugh, Oivanki did not aspire to the role he now finds himself playing, either Santa or St. Nicholas. It just evolved, he said, when he began growing a beard after he was laid off from his job as an engineer in the petrochemical industry.

“People said, ‘You ought to be Santa Claus,’ ” Oivanki recalled. “So I ordered an outfit in December 2016 and been playing Santa every year since 2016.”

Now sporting long gray locks and a full mustache and beard, Oivanki doesn’t just look the part, he said he has “some pedigree” to the historical figure. 

“My paternal grandparents are from Finland,” he said. “My cousin lives eight kilometers south of Santa’s Village in Rovaniemi. In 1994, she and I, my mother and dad went to Finland and visited Santa’s Village, and my birthday is December 24.”

Spreading Christmas cheer and joy comes naturally for Oivanki, a former seminarian student at St. Joseph Cathedral Prep Seminary School in Baton Rouge who is active in the choir and as a cantor at Immaculate Conception Church in Denham Springs. Oivanki, a baritone, and his wife both sing in the Baton Rouge Symphony chorus. This musical Santa also plays six instruments including piano, organ, trumpet, flute, guitar, banjo and mandolin and plans to write an arrangement for the song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” for the symphony to perform.

And, like his jolly counterpart, Oivanki speaks the language of children all over the world – or at least in eight countries. He is fluent in Spanish and speaks some Finnish. And, his background in Latin from seminary school makes for an easy transition into several other languages including French, Portuguese, Italian, Swahili and Japanese.

Oivanki recalled playing Santa at a festival at his church in 2017 on a day set aside for elementary school children.

“That was a lot of fun,” he said. “Of course, I got some comments about my outfit … ‘Those aren’t really boots.’ I had some chaps on. Now, I have a pair of boots with fur on top so it looks more authentic. But I learned my lesson from that. You pick up things from that.”

And his long gray hair will continue to grow, he said, brushing it back with his fingers, to the consternation of his wife.  Oivanki, a cancer survivor, said he planned to grow it for five years then donate it to make wigs for people with cancer. He has two more years to go.

“I’m used to him with short hair. I watch him combing
this long stuff out in the morning … ,” Sarah trails off, shaking her head.

Oivanki most recently played St. Nicholas, the Catholic saint, at a pancake breakfast fundraiser at Immaculate Conception Church to raise money for students to attend the March for Life campaign in Washington, D.C. in January. 

Sarah has no plans to play Mrs. Claus alongside her husband. And, the couple, married since 1975 and parishioners at Immaculate Conception Church since then, admit Christmas is not a year-round season for them. They don’t keep decorations on permanent display and Oivanki’s appearances only take place during one month of the year.

But, when you like, sound and act like Santa, it’s tough not to play along, no matter what time of year.

“It gives me a certain pleasure when children ask, ‘How are you doing?’ and seeing their faces light up,” said Oivanki. “I’ll get requests for small things and sometimes I’ll say, ‘You’ll have to speak up,’ so their parents can hear. That’s the trick to it – making children happy.”