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Is that you, Santa?

Erika Sherk
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Dec 08/06) - The tiny blond girl walked slowly away, her arms filled with candy canes. At the last moment, she turned and whispered, "I will always believe in you, Santa Claus."

Nearly a decade later, the memory still brings tears to the eyes of Rick Poltaruk.

Eventually the highest paid Santa in Canada, Poltaruk, who now resides in Yellowknife, began his career in 1990 in Vancouver. A friend asked him to play the part at a shopping mall.

"It was a total fluke," he said.

Poltaruk began part-time, but then his friend took over a whole group of shopping malls and asked him to run all the children's events in all the malls.

"And I was in business," he laughed.

Soon he was running his own company - Claus Encounters - and had 20 Santas in his employ. That led to his Santa school, when he realized his guys needed a bit of help.

His employees had to follow certain rules. They were required to have three Santa shirts ("in case one of the little darlings was sick on you," said Poltaruk) and two pairs of Santa pants ("in case one of the little darlings peed on you," he said.)

At events, each Santa always had an elf with him. The two kept in touch by two-way radio, the receiver of which was hidden in the Santa hat. As parents sent their child up to see Santa, the elf would collect intelligence information from the parents on the child's name and interests and radio it ahead, so Santa would be "magically" knowledgeable - eliciting total wonder from the little ones.

"It was really cool," said Poltaruk.

"We never asked for their Christmas wish. That's their private thought."

But when it comes to Christmas wishes, he said, he has heard some pretty strange ones.

One little boy requested Kraft Dinner and a fly swatter.

The next year, when the same boy was back sitting on Poltaruk's knee, he asked him why he wanted Kraft Dinner and a fly swatter.

"The Kraft Dinner was to catch bumble bees," replied the child, "and the fly swatter ... to end their miserable lives."

When asked what his best Santa attribute is, Poltaruk paused.

"I don't act like Santa," he said. "Or how people believe Santa should act."

Or sound like, for that matter.

Poltaruk let out a roaring, "Ho Ho Ho," nearly causing a reporter to fall off her chair with fright.

"Kids would hear that and run a mile," he said.

Instead, Poltaruk's Santa voice is gentle and warm, the epitome of what the jolly old man's voice is supposed to be.

Today, Poltaruk is retired from the Santa Claus game. He got sick almost every Christmas he served as Santa, he said.

"You pass several thousand kids over your lap in one season," he said. "That's a lot of germs."

Despite the challenges of a Santa career, he said it was still a magical transformation.

"Up to mid-November we are just greasy bikers, after that we're Santas. And on the 26th we're greasy bikers again," he said with a laugh.