January 21, 2020

By RACHEL HENRY

You better not shout,
you better not cry,
you better not pout,
I’m telling you why …

With his snow-white hair and beard, round, rosy cheeks and even rounder belly, no one is a better candidate to play Santa Claus than Orangeville native Mike Pytlik, and he takes his job very seriously.

From mid-November to Dec. 24, Pytlik is the big guy in the red suit at Fairview Park Mall in Kitchener, posing for pictures and talking with children and adults alike about what they want for Christmas and doling out suggestions of how to stay off the naughty list.

What started as a joke in 1984 has led to 28 years of donning the famous red and white getup almost year-round.
“At the time I was the largest in the office. My boss came in, handed me a red suit and told me I was going to be Santa for the company Christmas party,” Pytlik said.

He said the idea struck him as “kind of cool,” and he was excited to play the part at the party.

“When the first child sat on my knee and said, ‘I love you Santa,’ I was hooked,” Pytlik beamed behind his beard.

With a Santa suit he bought from Sears, he started doing other Christmas events for family and friends.

“The whiter my hair got, the more I was called Santa throughout the year,” Pytlik said. “It just kind of grew on me.”

Pytlik and his wife, Virginia, have wholeheartedly embraced the roles of Mr. and Mrs. Claus, spending the last five years volunteering in their hometown of Orangeville. They visit terminally ill children throughout the year at Hospice Dufferin, and do pet pictures with the SPCA every December in addition to the Orangeville Christmas parade and various other gigs.

Together they have acquired a house full of Christmas paraphernalia and keep some of the decorations out year-round. Pytlik also incorporates the season into his daily life, while managing and maintaining two apartment buildings.

“I’ve got red coveralls, a red nose on the front of my tractor — it’s a John Deere of course — and a reindeer statue in the front foyer of the one building,” Pytlik laughed.

He also bleaches his hair and beard to keep it white, and sports a replica of a ring seen in the Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street. As if that weren’t enough, he also has his face on a Canadian stamp.

In his spare time, Pytlik can be found in his workshop, though not quite making toys. He said he spends several months of the year attaching bells to leather strips with reindeer stamped on them, which he gives to children around Christmas. In 2011 he gave out almost 1,000 bells to visitors.

In order to stay up-to-date on the latest news from the North Pole, Pytlik and his wife attend several Santa Claus conferences throughout the year.

In March they attend “Celebrate Santa” in Gatlinburg, Tenn., where over 400 Santas, Mrs. Clauses and elves enjoy camaraderie and vendors while attending courses including makeup, costume, balloon twisting, magic, how to run a business as Santa, American sign language and autism.

“The event is held right around St. Patrick’s Day,” Pytlik said. “So the two are combined to celebrate the Holly and Shamrock Ball and Parade.”

In June, Portland, Mich. celebrates Santafest, where over 60 Santas come together to share the Christmas spirit. Last year they went on a Niagara Falls cruise.

Michigan is also home to the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School, a non-profit organization as well as the world’s longest running Santa school entering its 76th year of classes beginning in late October.

Charles Howard, founder of the school, and fellow Santa Jim Yellig were the first people to be inducted into the Santa Hall of Fame and were the inspiration behind the ethics and morality of the Regional Municipality of the North Pole’s Santa Claus Oath. Pytlik is the proud Canadian ambassador of the oath, which every professional Santa is required to sign.

Those interested in the business aspect of being Santa can find work with non-profit organizations, companies hosting Christmas events and photo sets found in malls.

Simon Gurecki, area manager and technical support at Photo Now, a photography company based in Hamilton, said personality is key to being hired as a Santa with their company.

“It takes a special kind of person to do that job,” Gurecki said. “You’ve got to constantly be happy.”

Photo Now hires Santas for paid positions at its Toronto, Kitchener, Cambridge, Brantford and Hamilton Christmas sets.

“Pay is strictly negotiated,” Photo Now site manager Zofia Skupien, said. “A real beard can be a huge deciding factor.”

In his more than 20 years as Santa at Fairview Park Mall Pytlik said he has seen everything from screaming children to curious guide dogs. It’s clear from the twinkle in his eye and every visitor who leaves smiling that Pytlik loves sharing the joys associated with Christmas, and judging by the treats left for him, the families appreciate his efforts.

“Children are what’s at the heart of Christmas,” he said, eyes smiling above rosy cheeks. “It’s their imagination and spirit that keep it, and Santa, going.”