‘WHERE are the reindeer?"
That was the question on children's lips as Santa Claus's sleigh -- er, helicopter -- flew in to visit four First Nations communities in southeastern Manitoba on Wednesday.
"They're resting and getting ready for Christmas. They go out on a big trip once a year," said Santa to all the curious kids.
"If I try to get them to come out two times a year, they're going to want to start a union!"
Santa took time out of his busy holiday schedule to fly with Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak's (MKO) Santa Express in December.
MKO represents 30 northern Manitoba First Nations communities, led by Grand Chief David Harper.
Excited students, teachers and parents at Brokenhead Ojibway, Hollow Water, Black River and Sagkeeng First Nations flocked outside to see Santa's helicopter arrive in their respective schoolyards and baseball diamonds.
In its fifth year, the Santa Express visited 38 communities over the course of eight jam-packed days.
Wednesday's trip was the first time the Santa Express has gone to southeastern Manitoba.
"It's about the excitement and it's about the pictures," said Harper, who travels with Santa to every community.
"You and I can take our kids to the mall for photos with Santa, but up north they don't have that."
Mrs. Claus usually accompanies Santa and the grand chief on their trek, but couldn't come on Wednesday because of impending deadlines at the North Pole.
The crew travels by car, plane and helicopter to reach all of the reserves.
"It's so much more intimate having a helicopter arrival because we have to circle around a few times (to land) and the kids are going berserk down below," said Santa before taking off for Wednesday's adventure from St. Andrew's Airport.
"I can see them waving and they can see me. I get choked up sometimes."
The kids were definitely going crazy with excitement at the four locations Santa visited on Wednesday.
Santa's first stop was at Sergeant Tommy Prince School in Brokenhead, where kids from daycare through Grade 10 buzzed about the big man in red.
"Santa's in our classroom!"
"He's the real Santa!"
The mixed kindergarten and Grade 1 class had a hard time settling down to take turns meeting Santa.
Over with the calmer Grade 2s, Quinton Rieck gave Santa a handmade card detailing what he'd like for Christmas.
"A gremlin, a video game, Mamma to come back from heaven and I can't remember what else," said Quinton.
Santa gave individually wrapped bags full of small toys and candy to all the kids he met. He doles out about 23,000 bags during his tour, Harper said.
The bags' contents are donated and wrapped by sponsors at the RCMP, the Aboriginal Centre of Winnipeg, Red River College and the Winnipeg Police Service's auxiliary cadets unit.
"We've had fireworks for the last three years, too, and 50 per cent of the $10,000 show was donated," said Harper.
"The fireworks in Island Lake were tremendous," Santa chimed in.
"You just have the kids around you like, 'Wow! Wow!" said Harper.
"It's what keeps us going," said Santa. "There's the downtime where you catch a little snooze between locations. But as soon as you step off the plane, (the kids) instantly energize you."
At the crew's next stop in Hollow River, Santa set up shop in the hallway and classes filed down to meet the bearded fellow.
Grade 6 student Todel Moneyos said he's met Santa at the school before.
"Yeah, but he never comes in a chopper. It's usually just a car."
Many kids -- and even some adults -- opted to sit on Santa's lap throughout the day and Santa didn't seem to mind. He's had Winnipeg Blue Bombers sit on his lap before, he said.
By the time Santa's finished at Sagkeeng Arena Multi-Plex around 2:30 p.m., he had met several hundred people.
His presence is enough to remind everyone about the simple pleasures of Christmas, said Sagkeeng council member Joe Daniels.
"Sometimes because of how Christmas is, it stresses people out a little, and this is good for the kids because this is what it's all about -- the giving of gifts, the receiving and the sharing."
Wednesday was a long working day for Santa. "I really do look forward to Boxing Day when Santa is in his recliner watching World Junior Hockey," the jolly old elf said.