Windsor

This Windsor man had a final wish: To don a Santa suit one last time

For the last 34 years, Gerry Lalande helped Santa bring joy to those both big and small by paying them a visit and wishing them a Merry Christmas. 

Gerry Lalande helped Santa deliver holiday cheer for the last 34 years

Mr. and Mrs. Claus sit at a desk with cookies and hot chocolate.
Gerry's family says his final wish after he entered hospice was to bring some Christmas magic by dressing up as Santa one last time. (Submitted by Amanda Fowler)

For the last time, Windsor, Ont., resident Gerry Lalande donned a red suit, just like jolly old Saint Nick, in the hopes of spreading some holiday cheer. 

It's what he's done every December for 34 years: Helping Santa bring joy to those both big and small by paying them a visit and wishing them a Merry Christmas. 

"He went all out to be Santa," said Melissa Lalande, one of his daughters. 

"He'd have cotton balls in his mouth to change his voice, Vaseline on his eyebrows with baby powder ... [and] big padding to put on the weight." 

This year was no different — except this time, Gerry knew it would be his last Christmas.

But before we tell you how this story ends, let's take you back to where it began. 

WATCH | Ontario man's last wish was to don a Santa suit one more time: 

Ontario man's last wish was to don a Santa suit one more time

4 months ago
Duration 3:50
For the last 34 years, Gerry Lalande helped Santa bring joy to those both big and small by paying them a visit and wishing them a Merry Christmas. His family — wife of 42 years Debbie Lalande, and daughters Melissa, Amanda and Rebecca — spoke with CBC's Jennifer La Grassa about "the magic and the joy" that drew Gerry back to his Santa suit each December for more than three decades.

Often 'helping other people' 

Born in Sudbury, Gerry was one of 11 children in his family, his wife Debbie Lalande told CBC News. 

There he worked on the railways and in the mines, before eventually getting into construction work. 

Debbie and Gerry knew each other in high school, but Debbie said she hadn't been too fond of him at the time. Several years later, their paths crossed again and they were soon engaged.  

A man stands in a Santa suit in a house.
The first year Gerry suited up was in 1989. His family says his visits were all voluntary and pretty soon, he was getting fully booked up months before the holiday season. (Submitted by Amanda Fowler)

In the early 1980s they got married, eventually had three daughters and moved to Windsor. 

"He was known as Mr. Fix It and my friends used to say ... I should start a business [called] 'rent-a-husband' because he was often gone long hours helping other people," said Debbie. 

His family describes him as a jokester, but Debbie says he was also a "kind and gentle soul." 

What would become a passion of three decades started in 1989 when Gerry first dressed up like Santa. His family says he travelled to Frankenmuth, Mich. — known for its Christmas decor — to buy a $2,000 suit for the part. 

As his children grew up, they had no idea that their old man became the jolly old man when the weather turned cold. 

A man stands outside with three women surrounding him.
Lalande has three daughters: Rebecca Wade, left, Melissa Lalande, centre, and Amanda Fowler, right. Lalande was diagnosed with cancer in February 2022. (Submitted by Amanda Fowler)

"My first Christmas play in elementary school ... I got very upset because dad had to work during my Christmas play, to find out [later] that dad was the Santa Claus in my Christmas play," said his daughter, Amanda Fowler. 

"And when the students went around to have their pictures taken with Santa, my candy cane had gotten stuck in his beard and dad was just paranoid that I was going to end up tugging on that candy cane and taking that beard off, revealing his secret."

Over the years, Gerry would volunteer his time as Santa at different events, including elementary school visits and breakfasts with Santa for charities.

"Kudos to the mall Santas, but my dad was the best looking Santa," said daughter Rebecca Wade.  

But his family says it was about more than just looking the part: Gerry genuinely loved making people happy. 

"It was just the magic and the joy," said Debbie, of what drew her husband of 42 years back to his Santa suit year after year. 

Wade says Gerry never charged anyone for an appearance as Santa because he didn't believe people should pay for a smile. 

Cancer diagnosis didn't stop him 

In February 2022, Gerry was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He went into hospice on Nov. 3. 

"Hospice, in the reception area, has a chair and it had a Santa suit laying on the chair just as decoration and when Gerry saw that he said, 'Oh no, it needs me,'" said Debbie. 

So what did he do? 

"He looked at the doctor and just said, 'I have one last favour, I really want to do Santa one last time,'" said Fowler. 

And Santa he became, with the help of his family and hospice staff. 

Santa and Mrs. Claus sit in front of a Christmas tree.
Gerry Lalande has been helping Santa for the last 34 years by dressing up as the jolly old man and delivering holiday cheer to everyone who will hear. This year, in hospice, Gerry dressed up one final time and beside his wife, Debbie Lalande, also joined in on the fun as Mrs. Claus. (Submitted by Amanda Fowler)

Meanwhile, Debbie surprised him by dressing up as Mrs. Claus for the first time and his daughters turned themselves into elves. 

Even though Gerry's legs and feet were swollen, Debbie says he was determined to fit his feet into Santa's boots. 

"I loved it," said Amanda. "It was one final memory to have with dad that we've had all these years." 

Hospice staff make special wishes happen

It's these sort of moments that Windsor-Essex Hospice's spiritual care co-ordinator Maria Giannotti creates all the time. She helped the Lalande family celebrate their final Christmas with Gerry. 

"When we heard that [he wanted to be Santa] we said, 'We got this, don't worry.' We decided we are going to make this happen," she said. 

"All I kept thinking is, 'Look at this man.... He's towards the end of his illness ... and yet he wanted to make us happy, and ... he wanted to do things for us." 

Giannotti says Gerry also told her his two biggest regrets in life were not flying a plane or driving a train. While Giannotti says she tried to make these happen in real life, they couldn't be done. 

Instead, she got a virtual reality set for him to fly the planes and drive the trains. 

For other people, Giannotti says she has brought in a miniature pony, thrown parties and even held a fake wedding. 

This year, through a partnership with Essex-Windsor EMS, the hospice also started offering a G.E.N.I.E. Ride, which is a program that brings people anywhere they want to go. 

Three women are dressed as elves, another is Mrs. Clause and Santa is sitting down at a desk in the middle.
Rebecca Wade, left, Melissa Lalande, left centre, Gerry Lalande, centre, Debbie Lalande, centre right, and Amanda Fowler, right, got all dressed up in Windsor-Essex Hospice for Gerry's final Christmas. (Submitted by Amanda Fowler)

"[Sometimes] people want to go back home and just have a cup of tea in their house," she said. 

Gerry requested his G.E.N.I.E. Ride take him and his family to Bright Lights in Windsor's Jackson Park. 

On Dec.15, after hanging up his Santa suit one final time, Gerry died surrounded by his family. He was 67 years old. 

"He didn't want to ruin Christmas for us, so he left us just before that," said Debbie. 

"If there were more Gerrys in this world, there'd be a lot more smiles."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennifer La Grassa

Videojournalist

Jennifer La Grassa is a videojournalist at CBC Windsor. She is particularly interested in reporting on healthcare stories. Have a news tip? Email jennifer.lagrassa@cbc.ca

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