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136 days, 13 hours, 39 minutes, 49 seconds until Christmas morning.

Santa-for-hire still living the dream

Santa Claus

He started in his mid-teens, and his dream is to one day become a mall Santa

BY SHAAMINI YOGARETNAM., OTTAWA CITIZEN DECEMBER 24, 2012

During a particularly heartbreaking car ride with his then 10-year-old daughter Delphine, Marc Bertrand found himself explaining the spirit of Santa Claus to his young girl on the verge of adolescence.

"It's the gesture - it's how you treat others, it's how you learn to give without receiving, that's the message of Santa Claus," Bertrand told his not-so-little girl.

But Bertrand is also father to Jonathan, 7, whose unwavering belief in the spirit of St. Nick keeps him and thousands of other Santas-for-hire like him employed.

Bertrand keeps his red toque, sterling wig and beard, red and white suit and black boots tucked away in his car.

Sometimes he changes in the garage on the way to a school or holiday party just so Jonathan won't get wind of what his Father Christmas is up to.

December, as expected, is a busy time for Bertrand, who's been picking up paycheques for his Kris Kringle skills for 13 years.

The 48-year-old is in the younger group of Santas-for-hire.

In Bertrand's own words, he was "just a young elf" when he started playing Santa.

He found a discarded costume in his mid-teens and hurried home to surprise his eight younger siblings.

"I just thought it would be the coolest thing to wake up my brothers and sisters," he said.

Santa ClausHe went into the garage to put on the costume before heading inside.

He kept it up for years, his siblings never knew it was him, and a lifelong Santa was born.

In an age when children can forgo a traditional handwritten letter to Santa and opt to send an email instead, it's not surprising that Bertrand placed an online listing on Kijiji advertising his services for the holiday season. It's basic supply and demand - every Christmas party needs a Santa - and Bertrand waits for the calls to start coming in, which they do, around Dec. 1.

The first rule of playing the big man, according to Bertrand, is simple: be nice.

But the trick to really selling yourself is to play the part as authentically as you can, Bertrand said.

"They're looking for someone who really fits the bill, who really believes that he is Santa Claus."

But the greats, like the Santa at Billings Bridge who was the inspiration for Bertrand's spin on the character, are the ones who think of the position as a kind of babysitter who knows how to respond to the different temperaments of children - the cranky ones and the pukey ones as well as the naughty and nice ones.

It's rare to have a free evening when you're playing Santa Claus in both official languages, says the web publisher, who works for National Resources Canada when he's not listening to whispered wishes and bouncing babies on his knees. Bertrand is even the lead on a community cable TV call-in show with Santa Claus, taking children's calls the week before Christmas from 6 to 7 p.m.

All the calls, from kids to the show and from parents trying to book parties, generally stop by Christmas Day, but Bertrand had to turn down a gig on Dec. 26 this year to spend time with his family.

And, naturally, he turned down a party on Christmas Eve because, well, that's not realistic.

"Santa's busy on the 24th - he's flying around Europe," Bertrand said, laughing.

As his kids grow taller, his belly fills out, his dark black hair turns grey and the lines on his face start to settle, Bertrand will get a chance to fulfil the goal he's working toward: Landing a gig as a mall Santa.

It seems even Santa Claus has a wish list.

syogaretnam@ottawacitizen.com

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