KOSTOWIEC, Dec 24 (AFP) - He is 76, sports a long white beard, and likes people to call him Santa. For a decade, Pole Romuald Madrakiewicz has criss-crossed his country helping his fellow poor, and not only with seasonal cheer.
"It's Santa! Santa!" yelled a crowd of youngsters at a primary school in Kostowiec, some 30 kilometres (20 miles) from Poland's capital Warsaw.
Dressed from head to toe in red, with a sack on his back, Madrakiewicz strode in.
The marvelling children tugged on his beard: it was real, for sure.
He dipped into his sack, producing sweets and other little gifts which he shared out among them.
But this Santa is not just a giver. He also comes to collect.
The children in Kostowiec had prepared four big parcels, filled with food, sweets, soap, and toys. They were bound for an orphanage in Krosno, in southern Poland.
"Santa gave us the orphanage's address last year, as well as the addresses of several poor families who need help," Zbigniew Reluga, head of the school, told AFP.
"Since then, the children have been doing what they can to help, and Santa comes to see us several times a year," he added.
Madrakiewicz said he aims to teach youngsters what really matters.
"My visits are meant to help them understand that in life you can share everything you have," he explained.
He clearly knows how to spread his message.
"Sometimes the kids even put their favourite mascot in the packet," he said emotionally.
This Santa's real magic is to spread a sense of generosity wherever he goes.
Behind his smile, Madrakiewicz carries a lot of hurt.
A former social worker, he gets by on a tiny pension and doesn't have a real home. He lived in a hostel for the homeless last year, and is now staying with friends.
When he needs money to buy gifts, he sometimes hunts for bottles and scrap metal to swap for petty cash.
"Santa gives out gifts and doesn't expect anything back, and on top of that, he gives everything he's got," Madrakiewicz said, his eyes fired up.
He learned his values in his family home in southeast Poland, and in the Scouts, he explained. "You're a Scout your whole life, and a Scout does a good deed every day," he added.
He has won growing recognition for his work -- in 2007 he was named Poland's volunteer of the year -- and is increasingly in demand.
He receives dozens of letters every day via the office of Homo Mizerus, a magazine for the homeless based in a poor district of Warsaw.
"I get a massive amount of post which I hand over to those who help me, because I simply don't have time to read them all, let alone come to the aid of everyone who needs me. It costs a lot and the parcels have got too heavy for me," he said.
As he grows older, he is looking for a successor.
Turning to the youngsters, he called out: "Who can be Santa?"
"Someone who's kind to other people," replied six-year-old Filip.
"Anyone can be Santa, as long as they know how to share," Madrakiewicz responded. (By Bernard Osser/ AFP)