In memory of Gipp and for all of those looking for more info on his life… with permission from the author Barry Bowman
I wrote a little piece about Gipp last year before we got the bad news. It’s from a column I write for a paper in Saskatchewan…
Santa Clause happens to be a very good friend of mine and he lives just a few miles away. Of course, during the off-season, he goes by a different name since it would be awkward to hail him as Santa as he goes about his day mowing his lawn or shopping for groceries. But if you happen to bump into him there’s no denying you’ve met Santa.
Okay, his “other” name is “Gipp” Forster and, if you met him you’d agree he is the living embodiment of Santa, with his white collar-length hair, perfect Santa beard, his twinkling eyes and, well, ample girth. But it’s his voice, a resonant, rich baritone tinged with a hint of huskiness that defines the man. You might have heard his voice on his annual syndicated Christmas program “It Feels Like Christmas” heard across Canada or on radio and TV commercials and narrations over the years. By the way, that’s Reverend Gipp Forster.
But back in the early 60’s Doug “Gipp” Forster was a gang member in Ottawa. He often carried a gun and always carried a knife tucked into his boot. He ran with a crowd of similar small-time toughs, generally evading the law for one reason or another. Even back then he was called “The Reverend” because, in spite of his criminal culture, he often read and quoted from the Bible. Eventually he turned his life around and went on to become an ordained minister; not your average minister but a “street pastor”. Gipp knew the streets and understood the dilemmas facing the people who populated the downtown areas after dark. He became well known and respected by them and eventually formed a street ministry he dubbed The Mustard Seed. Soon after, it branched out as a food bank which now feeds thousands and exists today in Victoria as well as Calgary. Gipp is retired now but still preaches regularly at a local Baptist church; his wife, Donna, also works diligently to help the disenfranchised on the street. Two remarkable people with a deep well of commitment. But back to Santa.
Every December around this time of year, Gipp hauls out an astonishing array of Christmas decorations to adorn their home. The neighbors have also joined in and the transportation on their block every year is amazing. Not only that, but the Forster’s garage is equally bedecked with a Santa’s Workshop theme and every evening, during the season, you’ll find Gipp on duty greeting families who bring their kids to sit on Santa’s knee. Recently, since his legs are showing their age, Santa’s helpers have been showing up to string lights and assist in this ritual and, predictably, their block regularly wins awards in the annual display contests. To Gipp Forster, Christmas is not just one season out of the year. Hop in his car mid-summer and you’ll be treated to a regular mix of Christmas music from his CD player! Of course! He’s Santa!
One summer day when Gipp and Donna were visiting us, Elliot, our neighbor’s six year-old son, happened to drop by to see if our daughter wanted to come out and play. Seizing the moment, and winking at Gipp, I asked him to come in and say hi to Santa who was sitting across from me in his golf shirt and jeans. We waited for the moment as he peeked around the door and beheld the old gentleman himself. Instantly he turned and raced back outside hollering for his little buddy to get over here! The two returned and approached Gipp reverently taking turns speaking to him. Finally Elliot asked: “Santa, how old are you?” After a moment’s reflection, Gipp softly replied: “As old as Christmas Elliott, as old as Christmas.” A small moment, I admit, but an unforgettable moment.
May your Christmas this year be equally unforgettable.