Forget the North Pole, Santa and Mrs. Claus reside right here in DC in Ward 8. Bert and Elaine Haaga moved to Southeast and initially lived in their son’s Anacostia apartment soon after he and his then new bride departed for larger quarters. Within five years, the couple, tired of renting but thoroughly “loving the diversity and opportunity” that Ward 8 affords, decided to buy their current three-bedroom, two-story, wood-framed house in Congress Heights. It met all their needs: affordability, diversity and a place to grow a garden.
“We feel that race is one of the biggest problems plaguing our country today. Our goal when we married in 1978 was that we wanted our lives to count for something. I know that there is a whole issue of gentrification,” said Mrs. Haaga, 67, who enjoys her retirement by communing with their three grandchildren and channeling their time by performing charitable acts.
“People of color have been mistreated and exploited. We need the process of healing,” said Mr. Haaga, 66, who still works parttime as a horticulturist at the Smithsonian Museum (federal complex greenhouse in Suitland, Maryland) tending to unusual, rare or nearly extinct species of plants like a Madagascar Palm, Calathea Warscewiczii (like a prayer plant) and rare banana plants.
Santa Claus Extraordinaire
With his distinctive long, white beard, burly frame and being called Pere Noel (the legendary French gift-bringer at Christmas) for many years, it was a natural transition for Bert to become interested in and ultimately receive specialized training to become jolly St. Nick. In 2016 Bert traveled to Denver’s Professional Santa Claus School where he honed his skills at a two-day conference and earned a Santa Claus certificate.
Since then, Mr. Haaga, in full Santa Claus regalia, and Elaine, sometimes dressed as Mrs. Claus, have entertained young and old at Christmas events at such venues as the Southeast White House, where they volunteer their services regularly throughout the year before the pandemic. The Southeast White House, located at 2909 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE is affectionately known in the area as the Little White House because of its architecture and proximity (four miles east) of the real White House. It is also known as a resource for those seeking lifestyle changes, fellowship and volunteer opportunities.
Additionally, Bert, as Santa Claus, participated in an Enchant Christmas event at National Stadium in 2019 where he hopes to return in 2021. He has enthralled children at a half dozen charity gigs for the 6th District Police Department.
“First he always provides a free service as Santa at several of our Christmas and holiday events for children in need. Secondly, the children like him. I met him performing at the Southeast White House and asked him to be Santa for us too,” said Outreach Officer Jason N. Medina who works out of the 6th District in Ward 7.
Living in West Africa
The Haagas went from South Carolina, where they met at the Columbia International University Graduate School, spent about a year and half in Quebec before living in West Africa for 27 years. They were assigned to work on a reforestation project because “the Sahara (Desert) was moving further and further south.”
Due to sensitive issues involving religion and politics in the African country that the Haagas resided and performed missionary work, they did not want to identify the specific nation by name.
The couple, with their two young sons in tow, worked with a small Christian church group of 10 to 20 people while “the rest of the neighbors were Muslim. We became a part of the town’s life and attended the weddings, naming ceremonies for babies and funerals. It was an incredible privilege to be a part of their lives,” Mrs. Haaga recalled.
Coming Back to America
Since returning to the United States and taking up residency East of the River, the Haagas have immersed themselves into their new environment with several activities. Before retirement Elaine worked for a nonprofit on Capitol Hill and “went from sitting on mats in (West Africa) to an office on Capitol Hill. That was a big adjustment.”
“Elaine was our Receptionist and Assistant Conference Planner. She cared about people deeply. She was a pillar of our organization. When she decided to retire in 2019 everybody was so sad. When she was leaving, she went out and got a gift for every single delivery person who came by the office. She made friends with them,” said Casey Lamar, the then Director of Conferences and Mrs. Haaga’s former supervisor. “Elaine and Bert are simply cut from a different cloth.”
They started a community garden at their home and happily share their fresh produce that includes collard greens, tomatoes and kale with any nearby resident interested in organic vegetables that are free from unhealthy additives and preservatives. Canning and sharing vegetables are methods used by the Haagas to formulate close bonds with neighbors.
“One of the reasons we moved here in Southeast was because we thought we could really get involved in the community and help heal racial issues plaguing our country,” Mr. Haaga said. The Haagas say they love living in DC and in their neighborhood in particular. They are happy that their history of forming friendships internationally is something they can enjoy in their new community.