Santa Claus can now fill e-mails as well as stockings

Christmas figure makes himself available to children on Internet and telephone during holidays

December 19, 2005|By JASON GEORGE

Out-of-work actor Kevin Lowry thinks he has not only stumbled upon a holiday gold mine, but perhaps his perfect role: Santa Claus.

No matter that the 27-year-old Chicagoan has nary a white hair upon his head, or that he tips the scales at a quite unjolly 145 pounds. The only appearances Lowry's Santa is making are on the Internet and telephone, calling children whose parents have discovered his Web site, www.SantaCallsMe.com.

Lowry is an e-Santa, a growing Internet presence that, for a fee, calls or e-mails children and adults during the holidays and takes on the Father Christmas persona.

"You go to the mall, you have to wait in line forever and the kids are crabby - it's not exactly the way you want it to go," said Anne Gaskell, who runs a similar company, www.SantaSpeaking.com, from Sioux City, Iowa. "We wanted to make it better for the kids, and that's what we're doing."

The e-Santa service is a great example of the small ways the Web is changing people's lives, said Geoffrey Nunberg, a professor who studies language and communication at the UC Berkeley's School of Information Management and Systems.

"The Web pervades the little stuff you do, not the big stuff," Nunberg said, mentioning buying movie tickets and making dinner reservations as an analogous service. "These are things you could really live without. But it is in these small conveniences that technology really pervades your life."

In his apartment, sipping a mug of Irish breakfast tea and listening to John Coltrane, Lowry said recently that he came upon his e-Santa idea by accident last year.

"It basically came from me finding I had the voice," said Lowry, whose everyday speaking voice is more a National Public Radio mid-tone than a Santa baritone.

Lowry had a friend last summer design his Web site, which lists the different options for calls and e-mails. A "Silver Bells" package, for example, is $14.99 and includes a phone call from Santa from Dec. 1 though Dec. 23. A call on Dec. 24 is $19.99. And rings from Kriss Kringle will run you $24.99 on Christmas.

E-mails from Santa are $6.99 and to e-mail Santa and get a reply costs $11.99.

Lowry has about five orders a day from customers all over the nation, and he expects more to come in as the holiday nears.

John Certo of Matawan, N.J., used Lowry's service for his three children the week before Thanksgiving "and they still talk about it," he said.

Certo said he liked the fact that on the Web site there was a place to introduce Santa to his children.

"I told them their pets' names, who their teachers were, and what they wanted for Christmas," Certo said, pointing out that a mall Santa rarely gives such a personalized interaction.

Parents also are using this information exchange to try to cut down on the naughty - such as unclean rooms and not sharing toys. "Tell them to be nicer to their brothers and sisters," is a request Lowry gets regularly.

He's glad to say it, he said, although he tries not to nag the kid the entire phone call. "I really want the kid to leave feeling great," Lowry said.

Last week, Lowry called a family with three boys, ages 1, 3 and 6, in Bloomington, Ill., and they seemed to listen when Santa told them to play together better.

"Hello, Alex. Do you know who this is?" Santa asked, pulling out his deep voice and sounding pretty much like one expects he would.

"Santa!" the boy screamed.

Even though the boys' parents had written on the Web form what their children wanted for Christmas, the answer to Santa's question "What would you like for Christmas?" had Santa employing his improv training.

"A motorcycle, that's what I want," Alex said flatly.

A pause.

"I don't know if I can fit that in my sled," Santa said, gathering speed and confidence. "But I'll get you something you really want. Ho-ho-ho."

"Hello, Zachary. I just wanted to say hello," Santa said, moving on to the 3-year-old.

"Tell me, do you like John Deere tractors?" he asked.

The boy squealed an "uh-huh!" The call appeared to be a success.

"It's the most fulfilling thing I've ever done," Lowry said after completing the five-minute phone call. "My favorite part is after I say goodbye and then hear them say to their parents, `I just talked to Santa.' "

Gaskell, who runs the company in Iowa, said that as a parent of three children under the age of 5, she knew it would be a hit with kids. "And it's better for the parents too," she said.

Not that she is making the calls herself. Instead she's contracting with an Omaha call center that finds Santas for phone time throughout the local area.

"We have a group that has the deep, jolly voice. Right now we have about seven different Santas," she said.

It seems that in keeping up with the modern global economy, Santa has ended up not just online, but in a location that would have seemed impossible not that long ago: outsourced.

Jason George writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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