You've got mail — from Santa

Web sites send kids videos, letters, tweets from St. Nick

  • Christine Joyce and her sons Tommy, 14, left, and Devin, 11, are ready to track Santa's progress with the NORAD site loaded on the family laptop. NORAD used Internet technology in 1998, added Twitter last year and this year added YouTube, Flickr and Facebook.
Christine Joyce and her sons Tommy, 14, left, and Devin, 11,… (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene…)
December 21, 2009|By Joe Burris |

'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, Santa showed up with the click of a mouse.

Old St. Nick - the pudgy, wrinkled fellow that kids write letters to and visit at the mall during holiday season - is steadily being replaced by Cyber Santa Claus. Instead of waiting for kids to see him in person, Santa chats online. He texts. He tweets. He e-mails. He sends cell-phone pictures and makes videos.

Santa's transformation is being ushered in by companies that seek to keep up with the Internet's growing influence, particularly with children. They've made St. Nick accessible, instantaneous and omnipresent.

"The huge difference is that kids can have the experience at home," said Alexandre Berard, CEO of a Canadian-based Web video company that launched the Portable North Pole, a free service allowing parents to create a personalized video message from Santa to their children.

Portable North Pole users answer an online questionnaire about their child and can also include a photograph. The information is used to create a personal video, with a map showing the path that Santa and his reindeer take as they travel from the North Pole to the child's home. Santa also mentions the child's name and talks about what the child wants for Christmas.

"Santa shows where you live, mentions your child's age, the color of his hair, the good things he's done and the bad things he's done," said Bérard, who said that Ugroup Media launched PNP in the United States on Nov. 30 after serving 1.5 million users in Canada during its launch last year.

The PNP is among many companies with a virtual Santa.

There's also, a live Webcast site that allows children to listen to Santa stories, talk and play games with him.

The Web site was launched five years ago by Canada-based INSINC; it began as an in-house project for employees' children. But word spread, and it became a service offering a daily pass to chat with Santa and watch his North Pole video for $2.95. A full-season pass (through Dec. 23) costs $9.95.

This year's site, launched two weeks ago, receives about 600 hits a day. And senior account executive Mark Winder says that this year the site is handy for parents reluctant to take their children to the mall to see Santa because of concerns about swine flu.

"It's a timely way to give parents a way around from saying, 'Oh, my gosh, should I take my kids to a place that's a hot bed for colds and flu?' " Winder added. allows children to receive three personalized text messages from Santa once they're registered by an adult. The messages cost $5.49, and parents can choose the date and time messages are sent.

The service was created by Anchor Mobile, a Missouri-based SMS gateway provider. It also plans to launch, a service allowing parents to take a photo of their fireplace and send it to Anchor, which would have a live Santa take a photo of himself in front of the fireplace image with a mobile phone camera.

"You then upload it from a site and send it to your child as proof positive that Santa was at your house," said Anchor CEO T.J. Kirgin. He says such Web-based products are more environmentally friendly than the old practice of writing letters to Santa.

"Texting Santa saves paper," said Kirgin. "At our company, we jokingly say that [overusing paper] is why there are no trees at the North Pole."

Santa also has a presence on social-networking sites. On Facebook, a site called "I Believe In Santa Claus" boasts 228,000 members.

Then there's SantaMessage2U, an iPhone application that allows parents to record a personalized message in their voice, convert it into the baritone voice of Santa, and send it to their kids.

The Santa app was created by Alissa Owen, a stay-at-home mom from Sandy, Utah, who saw it as a way for parents to have fun communicating with their children during the holiday season. She spent about $2,500 creating the app with the help of a London-based Web developer.

The app sells for $1.99. Owen, who receives 70 percent of sales revenue, said she has sold about 800 since launching the product on Dec. 1.

The mother of four said the device connects with Web-savvy kids in a way that traditional Santas can't. She added that some parents - herself included - use it as a deterrent for Christmas gift requests that are out of the question.

When her boys told her that they wanted a puppy for Christmas, she sent a message in Santa's voice reminding them that the family agreed it wouldn't get any pets until her youngest son - 1-year-old Henry - was potty-trained.

"My neighbor's son, a third-grader, said that he didn't believe in Santa anymore," said Owen. "And his parents sent him a Santa message that said that if he didn't exist, 'how would Santa know that you hide your dirty clothes in your closet?' "

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