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News Flash: Santa Lives SOUTH of the Border
Sunday, February 1, 2015

News Flash: Santa lives SOUTH of the Border
One of the best things about traveling and living in other parts of the world is the people one meets. In a conversation with someone who has walked a different path, lived in a different part of the world as we, our minds expand - it's a whole new kaleidoscope of comprehension and insights. Ajijic, a Lake Chapala tribal village in the state of Jalisco, way down into Mexico, is one of the top ex-pat communities in the world - and certainly a place to experience this people-to-people education.

It's the fifth day into the new year. Most folks have put away their holiday decorations and have begun working on this year's New Year's Resolutions - me included. Yet, I'm sitting in a cozy-quaint coffeehouse at the Ajijic Plaza, waiting to interview one such interesting person......(whispered wonder in my voice) ..Santa Claus! You see, contrary to what we've always thought, Santa doesn't live at the North Pole - although it is headquarters for his toy-making elves and flying reindeer. After all the merry-making of Christmas, he actually cocoons himself - with Mrs. Claus, of course - south of the border - in this very village.

I first met Francis and his wife, Anastasia very shortly after my husband and I moved to Ajijic a year and a half ago. We were eating dinner at a popular cafe-bar called Adelita's in the next-door village of San Antonio, and listening to the equally popular band, The Lucky Dogs. We had met the band leader, multi-talented Paul Brier and his fiance, Nancy, shortly before, thus the invitation to come hear the band and see one way the retired people of this community have fun. The food was delicious, the music was rockin', and the 50 -plus aged crowd was dancing with youthful abandonment. Anastasia, whom Nancy had just introduced me to, leaned over to me and yelled into my ear over the loud music, "You wouldn't see this back home. They'd be sitting in front of the television. Here, they won't be told they're too old!'" A minute later, Nancy and Anastasia were on the dance floor dancing and laughing together like high school girls - I was content to watch. Never mind that their husbands were busy playing in the band and therefore unavailable as dance partners.

At the back of the band, at the drum set, sat Anastasia's husband, Francis, who was as yet clean-shaven because he doesn't start growing his beard until September. He had an expression on his face of man-on-a-mission as he did the job of Time-keeper of the band.

Francis also sends out a weekly newsletter called Keep It LIVE at Lakeside, which announces many of the entertainment opportunities for area residents and visitors.

Back to the coffee-shop. I look up to see Francis stride in - again, like a man on a mission. He's dressed in a tropical print shirt, khakis, and a beret, and he's squinting hard as he peruses the room for me. We settle in at our corner low-to-the-floor table and cushioned chairs and I begin the inquisition. After-all, everyone wants to know more about Santa, just as everyone he meets is interested in larger -than- life Francis Dryden.

There's a solid background here. Francis was born and raised in one of the three Maritime provinces of Canada, New Brunswick. Francis gets his love of music from his father who played accordian in dance bands during the 30's and 40's. At the age of ten, his parents bought him a drum set, and he began drum lessons from a guy by the name of Lynn Wallace, who immediately asked Francis what he wanted out of it. Young Francis said right away, " I want to make money." And so, they got to it. Francis says one of the most valuable things Wallace taught him that has enabled him to keep steady work and to be able to step in with any band was "keep the high -hat going on beat two and four and to forget the drum solos (you don't get paid by the note!) - the high- hat is for the band; the rhythm is for the dancers. The drummer is the metronome."

I asked Francis what in the world led him to want to be Santa Claus for photography companies. Of course there is a story.

"Oh, well I started out doing it for the grand-kids!" he said, his voice tinged with delight.

In Edmonton, during September and November, he began walking down his grandchildren's street in his Santa suit. Clipboard in hand, he would intently attend to his "list" - checking it once and checking it twice. The grandchildren - and soon all the kids on the street - knew that Santa was making notes about good and bad behavior. Word spread. Soon other people began to ask Francis if he would come to their streets.

One day he was approached by a businessman who had Christmas photography contracts with nine malls. Francis began to fill in for the other Santas' days off. Soon after that, it was clear that he was a very popular Santa - certainly one of the most authentic-looking, and he was off and "sitting. After Francis and Anastasia moved to Ajijic in 2012, he has continued to fly up to Canada each winter for several weeks during the Christmas season to be Santa for many boys and girls getting their Santa-photos taken.

"It's a great gig," Francis says. In the airports, children of all cultures take one look at him in his full white beard, long hair, rosy cheeks,and twinkling eyes - and they scurry to meet Santa. Airport personnel are often prone to upgrade him to First Class. On the plane, everyone wants a "selfie"with Santa. When he arrived at his destination this year, he was given the use of a Dodge Journey (courtesy of Great West Chrysler in Edmonton, Canada) marked "Santa's Sleigh." He pulled up in his "Sleigh" to his private parking spot at the mall, which is a few steps away from his dressing room and on to the big Santa chair.

The best perk of all, he says, is the interaction with the kids and the parents. Having already studied up on the popular toys of the year, he handles every situation like a pro - to the relief of many a parent. Santa's elves only make toys - no cars, no puppies or ponies. And "Santa" can always find the humor in every situation - like the one pictured below of two cousins. (see photo in original posting at my blog site)

A couple of times during my conversation with Francis, Anastasia breezes in and sits down with us. She's been running errands in the village. With blonde hair, porcelain skin, Marilyn Monroe figure, and vivacious personality, she herself is a popular person in town . She and Francis were both real estate agents in Canada, and she continues to work in realty here in Ajijic. She is quick to contribute as she listens to Francis recount his experiences. It's evident that she is very proud of him, as he is of her.

As if real estate, drumming, and being Santa weren't enough, Francis has been a Mason and a Shriner for many years. It's the charity work for children that both organizations are involved in that draws him, and he is happy to lend his business expertise to the administration of these groups. He feels that it is crucial to be a support to the parents of children in need. Programs he is working on right now in Lakeside schools are "Stop Bullying" and "Bikes for Books" - with the latter promoting reading. He also wants to put musical instruments in children's hands.

I couldn't resist asking him to tell me what the mystery is about Masons. He gets the Santa twinkle in his eyes and says, "We all know how to identify each other wherever we are - there's one special thing." But of course, he did not disclose the one special thing!

We wrap up our conversation with the photo I took of Francis standing at the window of the coffee-shop, Anastasia coaching him on his pose. She tells me that she wants him to stay put next Christmas and be Santa for the children here. He likes the idea as well.

How lucky the children of Ajijic will be!


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