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Exuberant expat is a not-so-secret Santa

David Dowell, santa, santa claus, st. nick
David Dowell, a not-so-secret Santa

In a former preacher and biker, THEO PANAYIDES finds a cheerful free spirit who combines chaotic good with a joy for living

The café in Tseri, just outside Nicosia, isn’t crowded, but it wouldn’t matter if it were; picking out David Dowell is child’s play. The bushy white beard, the girth (he’s 127kg), the massive hands. He’s even wearing red, to make it easier. He was once a preacher with the Church of Christ back in Texas, then a biker – he has a Moto Guzzi parked outside – and mechanical engineer; these days he’s doing “welding and construction work and fabrication work” for a local poultry company. Once a year, however, from about late November (it seems to start earlier every year), David parlays his obvious resemblance to a certain seasonal icon to become St Basil aka ‘Ayios Vasilis’, a not-so-secret Santa.

We talk on Friday, December 9. He was at the American Academy in Larnaca before our interview, doing the rounds of the classrooms (even hardened high-schoolers cheered at his arrival and posed for pictures), and is going back this evening to attend their Christmas pageant – after which Santa season begins in earnest.

“This coming week, I only have one day that I’ll be able to go to work,” he tells me, ‘work’ meaning his rest-of-the-year job. “Tomorrow I have four visits [as Santa], Sunday I have six visits. Monday morning I go to work, then Monday evening Coca-Cola starts”. He’s partnering with the drinks giant this year, spreading Christmassy vibes at events all over the island. “Tuesday it starts at 7.30 in the morning and goes on till 11 o’clock at night – then the rest of the week till Christmas is exactly like that.” It actually stays like that till New Year’s Day – the anniversary of St Basil’s death in 379AD, which is when many Cypriots exchange their presents. “I think it’s kind of cool,” he muses, that people hand out gifts “to celebrate not necessarily my death, but my life… Y’know, of the man I represent,” he adds, by way of afterthought.

The line between the man he represents and the actual man tends to blur occasionally – partly because a bushy beard and a Santa suit aren’t really enough; you also need a Santa personality. “There are grumpy Santas. They don’t last very long,” he quips. There are also Santas, he adds, looking sombre, who are “not the kind of people you want messing with your kids, that’s just a fact of today’s society”. David has a family of his own, which is reassuring in this regard – Cypriot wife Stavri and two boys, Odysseas and Apollonas – but he’s also good with kids in general, enjoys the banter (even, or especially, with juvenile sceptics) when he goes on a visit, and is something of a big kid himself, talking of the “sheer joy” of swinging on swings and going on ‘teeter-totters’ (American for see-saws). Even that, however, doesn’t entirely explain his charisma.

david with his own kids
David with his two kids

It’s not just a question of not being grumpy. Yes, he’s cheerful, almost self-consciously so. Yes, he sports the twinkly smile and booming ho-ho-ho laugh – but he also has a way with words (as befits an ex-preacher), a knowledge of things from Maltese history to Japanese geography and a certain expansive worldview, a joy in living. He’s not petty, or at least he doesn’t seem to be. He loves his wife – “She’s everything in the world to me” – and says so often. He’s the type who picks up hitchhikers, and stops to help motorists in trouble. He recalls stepping in to save a young man from being beaten up, in Portugal in the 90s (the young man was being bullied because he had Aids, and later hung out with David for a few days to escape his tormentors). But he’s also something of a free spirit, moving constantly – he’s been here since 2005, which is by far the longest he’s ever lived anywhere – and craving the thought of the open road. “I was described one time,” he tells me, “as ‘chaotic good’.”

He’s been playing Santa Claus for a while, albeit more systematically in the past few years; the first time was in 1985, when he was 22 (he’s now 59), dyeing his beard and riding his motorbike to the mall – he placed a red lens over the headlight, so it looked like a red-nosed reindeer – to be “a photography prop,” as he puts it. Posing for photos and handing out presents is still part of the job – but his Santa is more ambitious these days, aiming also to make the kids laugh, reassure those who feel overwhelmed, and of course field questions from non-believers. Is his Greek up to it? “I know enough Greek to talk to children,” he replies with a chuckle – and besides “they ask pretty much the same questions everywhere”.

‘How can you visit all those houses in one night?’ is one perennial; “I tell them that some of our elves are ‘magissa’, and make special dust that allows the reindeer to fly when they need to”. (‘Magissa’ is ‘witch’ but I’m guessing he means ‘magika’, i.e. ‘magic’; I presume the imperfect Greek only adds to his authenticity.) ‘What’s my name?’ ask some kids, trying to catch him out – but again, he has a ready answer: “‘That’s all computerised in the sleigh, along with your address. You send us your letters, we’ve got special elves that translate them for us. We make sure that everybody’s letter is read… Sometimes we can’t get you what you want, but we do our best.’ That pretty much makes them happy.”

There seem to be surprisingly few kids who don’t believe in Santa at all – then again, it’s not like an eight-year-old necessarily ‘believes’ that the old man in front of him has magical powers. It’s a story, like a superhero story – and David’s secret is perhaps that he’s childlike (or chaotic) enough to become invested in the story, along with the kids. In Larnaca this morning, for instance, “there was one kid who said ‘You’re not the real Santa!’. I said ‘Why not?’. He said ‘Your reindeer aren’t here!’. I said ‘It’s too hot for my reindeer here. They’re in Troodos, there’s a little lake up there, they’re splashing in the water trying to stay cool’.”

Oh yeah? Which one’s your favourite – Rudolph?” sneered the kid. (It’s unclear if this kid was as much of a little punk as David’s American accent makes him sound.)

“No, Blitzen,” shot back Santa. “Because he weighs about 450 kilos, and every night he climbs into bed with me and pushes me and Mrs Vasilis out on the floor, and then everything in the morning smells like Blitzen.” This explanation was apparently detailed and outlandish enough to satisfy the kid, who walked off, obviously having second thoughts. “So sometimes you can convince them.”

David tries to bring joy to the job – “I dance with the little kids. I pick ’em up and hold them. I get their mums and dads to sit on my lap to take pictures” – but the job isn’t always joyful. Santa gets to peek into people’s lives, and what he sees can be painful. “One of the saddest times,” he says – his voice starts to shake at the memory – “was when a little girl asked me for her mum back. She had died of cancer. And she asked me if she could have her mum back for Christmas.”

David in action as Santa Claus
David in action as Santa Claus

David’s blue eyes well up with tears; I’m a bit blindsided by this surge of genuine feeling. At the time, he just tried to comfort the girl – “If God took your mama, it’s because he needed her for something” – and gave her his phone number, saying “If you need me, call me”. (She actually did, once or twice; it’s both funny and sad to think of a six-year-old girl phoning up Santa to unload about her feelings.) But there’s also the more subtle sadness that comes when he visits a home and feels the tension in the air. “It’s not hard to tell. You’ll see the mum or dad standing off by themselves, and everybody else all in one clump.” Christmas, as we’re constantly being reminded, is all about family: “And if the family is good – or reasonable – during the year, then everybody has fun at Christmastime. If the family has problems,” he shrugs eloquently, “that’s when I make a difference to the little kids”.

Family’s always played an outsized role in his own life, both the one with Stavri and the one he grew up in. David is the fourth of five brothers, born to a military family (his dad was a senior master sergeant in the Air Force) that moved around constantly: “I have one brother that was born in Oklahoma, one brother was born in Tennessee, one brother was born in Illinois, one brother was born in Tokyo, Japan, and I was born in San Antonio, Texas”. Growing up, his only real friends were his siblings – unlike Stavri, he notes with a grin, who seems to know everyone in Tseri since they were three years old. (What does she bring to the marriage? “Stability.”) It was a happy childhood but rootless by definition, leading to a turbulent phase in his teens when he withdrew into himself and became a kind of anti-Santa, consciously looking for the worst in people as a kind of defence mechanism.

“There was a time when it was real hard for me to get along with people,” is how he puts it. He wasn’t violent, “I was very quiet. I was anti-social. I say I’ve never hit anybody in anger – but I did play American football, so I got to hit a bunch of people on an almost daily basis!” David gives his booming laugh, then goes quiet: “One day I realised that I didn’t really have any friends… [So] I decided to tell people what was good about them instead, keeping what was bad about them to myself. Makes a world of difference.”

You might say he keeps himself joyful by consciously setting out to spread joy to others. “I believe the most important thing I can do every day is make somebody smile,” he confides. “That is my goal every day. And I need to make my wife smile at least twice!” For one month a year – this month – that’s very easy; Santa is a bastion of good cheer, he makes people smile just by turning up. “But during the year, I will on occasion act goofy. I will tell you jokes, I will make you a flower out of a napkin… Just whatever”. David did some acting in high school, and of course being a preacher – especially his slightly fire-and-brimstone brand of preaching, with Hell very much in the picture – is also a kind of performance. One almost wonders what came first, David Dowell or Santa Claus; did the role offer him a way out of his demons – or, conversely, did he simply find a conduit for the righteous exuberance he was feeling anyway?

Has life turned out the way he wanted? “Umm… No!” he replies with a laugh; but you know what they say, “if you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans”. It’s not like he missed out on any specific dream, it’s just that the end result is a little drab and domesticated for a larger-than-life (and chaotic) character. He doesn’t really like living in Cyprus, it’s far too small – besides, “I really, really like to ride motorcycles, and there’s only so many places you can go here”. He likes excitement and the open road; he’s not too great (I suspect) with rules and schedules. A Santa visit costs about €70/hour, as a very rough ballpark figure – but David only chuckles when I ask how long he stays on each visit: “I’m usually pretty bad at telling time… I do this for the smiles”.

David on one of his beloved motorbikes
David on one of his beloved motorbikes

In the end, he falls back on the things that really matter: his faith in God and making people smile, his love for Stavri and the boys. “We take the days as they come – and I am happy, happy, happy to be with my wife. She’s much better than I deserve.” Hopefully they’ll move on someday, scratch that restless itch in his psyche (northern Italy, around Lake Como, would be his first choice), but for now he’s here – and for one month a year, at least, he finds a suitable alter ego, a cheerful, globe-trotting, do-gooding type like himself. The story of Santa is a kind of collective illusion, a lovely fantasy, allowing ourselves a sliver of ‘chaotic good’ in a too-settled world. “We’re all different,” muses David Dowell. “But we all have a love of the wonder that a little kid’s eye sees. And, as long as you’re willing to see through their eyes, the world never gets old!” Merry Christmas.

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