When going undercover in Pequot Lakes, Santa Claus adopts the alias “Joseph Wagner.”
Wagner’s cover story is as an operations technician at a BP oil processing plant out of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, a remote area above the Arctic Circle. Some might call it the North Pole.
Wagner grew up in Coon Rapids, but moved to the great up north in 1977 after graduating from high school. His family had a cabin on Sibley Lake while growing up, so he always planned to spend his retirement there. He bought a summer home on Sibley to be closer to his aging parents and grandparents.
“I commuted back and forth. I really didn’t spend winters here. I was elsewhere, Alaska and wherever else I was. I tried to get back here for Christmas every year to spend it with them,” Wagner said. “That’s how I started doing the Santa thing at the nursing home.”
Wagner only comes back to his Sibley Lake home every two weeks. At any other time he works 84-hour weeks at the North Pole. Every year since 2002, Wagner has been making special Christmas trips to the Good Samaritan nursing home in Pine River.
“My grandmothers were originally in the Pine River nursing home,” Wagner said. “They were there the last five or six years of their lives, so I started doing Santa Claus back then just for them. It just developed and they’ve long since passed on and I just keep doing it every year. I enjoy doing it.”
Before bringing Christmas to the nursing home, this Santa always had an affinity for the elderly. During high school he worked at a nursing home in Coon Rapids, so bringing Santa to the nursing home in Pine River was only natural.
“I wanted to be around the old folks and used to play cards with them all the time. I think they’re an amazing resource that people have a tendency to talk over instead of talking to. They’ve been through all the life experiences you and I are going to go through,” Wagner said.
Today, when Santa visits the nursing home, he brings gifts for the residents, and his four elves bring bags of candy.
“I don’t know if the nursing home likes that. I’m sure some of those old folks aren’t supposed to have candy, but they get it anyway,” Wagner said.
“Every year has been wonderful. The kids love it and we all leave thrilled with getting to see the people and enjoy the time helping them,” said Angela Fritze, the elves’ mother.
“(They) wanted (their) kids to do something besides wake up Christmas morning and just tear into presents and have it all be about them, them, them,” Wagner said. “In this commercial day with Christmas, it’s nice to remember it’s about the birth of the good Lord, Jesus Christ, and it’s about sharing with others and he wants to teach his children that. I think it’s great. It’s nice to have help.”
Wagner’s Christmas tradition is not only important to the residents at the nursing home, it is also so important to him that he is missing work this year to continue it.
“I told them in no uncertain terms they better give me the day off without pay or I’m not going to come back. This is something I want to do, and I’ve been doing it a long time and I’m not going to stop now. They were nice enough to give me the day off without pay. Someone was nice enough to cover for me,” Wagner said. “It’s my Christmas.”
There aren’t many families at the nursing home during Christmas, so Wagner said the experience is valuable to everyone involved.
“Just to see the look on their faces when I show up and when the elves are there,” Wagner said. “It’s just satisfying, gratifying to know the ones that are alone will have some company on Christmas morning. That’s probably the biggest thing.”