Staff Photo: Jason Braverman
Raymond Wozniak, who plays Santa Claus at the Gwinnett Place Mall, tries to get 3-year-old Jasmine Gray's sister, Serenity, 7, to join him on his lap this week at the Duluth mall.
DULUTH -- For the past 40 years, Raymond Wozniak of Lawrenceville has played the role of Santa Claus during the Christmas season. During that time he's learned a few things, including how to say "Merry Christmas" in 18 different languages.
He's also mastered "smile" and "hello" in everything from Vietnamese, Spanish, Chinese Mandarin to Cantonese, Ethiopian, Polish, Bengali and Hindi.
"Most of the kids can speak English, but some can't -- I've met a number that can't," Wozniak said about greeting children at Gwinnett Place Mall. "Just hearing it in their first language is really nice. They always ask me, 'How do you know this?' And I say, 'Santa speaks all languages.'"
Wozniak, who goes by Santa Ray, is fluent in Korean, which he learned in the '60s when he was drafted into the Vietnam War. He was one of 250 soldiers chosen to serve in Korea, while the rest went to Vietnam.
"I looked at this as a great anthropological opportunity," he said. "These people have a 4,000-year-old culture -- one of the oldest cultures on the face of the earth, much like India, but older than the pyramids."
On the first day he set foot on the foreign soil, Wozniak tried to speak the language and signed up for classes at the Art Education Center.
"My first words were 'shil lyeh hamnida' or 'excuse me,' like get out of the way," he said. "I thought it would be fun to learn, so I enrolled in classes and set my mind to it."
Four decades later, Wozniak is using language to bring cheer and happiness into the lives of those who use English as a second language. He loves being Santa Claus because children believe in him and look to him for advice and wisdom.
"He's such a beloved character," he said. "When I got older I realized that people really vest in him with his ability to give advice and listen to him. The uniform gets respect or something. I try to use Santa's position in our society as a way to love people and do good."
Santa Ray listens to the children's problems, wishes and concerns. He recently prayed over a girl who had been diagnosed with cancer. When he was finished, the girl said, "Oh, Santa. That's just what I hoped you would do."
"It's really a lot of fun having him in a sense that he can communicate with the children that come through. If he hears a parent talking in Korean, he will begin talking in Korean and their eyes widen up," Shelley Korenbrot, a Gwinnett Place Mall representative said. "It's made a difference having him and I think it's really joyful for all of the families, no matter what language they speak."
These days Wozniak uses his Korean for more than just talking to all of the naughty and nice children; he also runs a nonprofit called Hope Social Services to help Koreans when they are in need. Since retiring from the state four years ago, he decided to donate all of his Santa wages back into the organization.
"We're talking mostly about the first generation of immigrants where English and the culture is still difficult for them," he said. "We help with Supplemental Security Income applications, substance abuse counseling, bailing out of jail then talking with them. It's not just 'ho, ho, ho' and make some money. It's a chance to love people year-round."
Wozniak has found the joy of giving to be a fulfilling facet of his life.
"I learned the secret to living Christmas year-round," he said "People always say, 'I don't want it to end.' It doesn't have to but, you just have to get your mind right. Quit thinking 'me, me, me' and 'mine, mine, mine' because as much as I give to others, it comes back to me. I really try to lift Santa up and use it in an intelligent way for work that will be pleasing to our God, but also bring happiness to kids."
Wozniak is at Gwinnett Place Mall from 3 to 8 p.m. Sundays through Saturdays until the end of the holiday season.