Kids still post millions of traditional letters to the Jolly Old Elf, but Canada Post and MSN Canada have turned him digital too.
I remember writing letters to Santa Claus when I was a child. Back then, I didn't understand how special it was that we could drop our wish lists into the red mailbox on the corner, addressed to Santa at the North Pole, postal code HOH OHO.
Later, when I was too old to write to Santa any longer but my younger siblings were still doing it, my dad perfected the art of sending the letters up the chimney on the rising hot air. As slick as that trick was, though, it couldn't compare to mailing your letter, because that got you a letter in return.
It was 1974 when three Canada Post employees in Montreal started responding to the letters that Canadian children sent to Santa. The Crown corporation formally rolled out the initiative across the country in 1982, pledging that Santa would respond to every letter sent to him. E-mails to Santa were accepted starting in 2001; as the medium has become more popular, numbers have risen steadily, with more than 44,000 e-mails responded to in 2006, an increase of more than 30 percent over the previous year.
But volunteers still reply to more than a million traditional letters every year. Lillian Au, spokesperson for Canada Post's Pacific region, told the Straight in a phone interview that children want to believe that Santa Claus has actually responded to their letter, and the most tangible evidence of this is a letter signed by him in an envelope addressed to them. "I don't think that will ever go away," Au said. She said the authors of some of the first letters to Santa, back in the '70s, are now helping their children write letters to Santa, passing on the tradition.
According to Au, about 15,000 current and retired Canada Post employees act as "Postal Elves". Over the past 26 years, volunteers have responded to more than 15 million letters in the language the letter was written, including Braille. Guinness World Records announced on November 9 that Canada Post is the record holder for the most letters received and replied to by mail.
Although Canada Post receives letters addressed to Santa all year round (and from all over the world), Au said that the Crown corporation really kicks off the program in mid November. Santa's address hasn't changed, either: Santa Claus, North Pole, HOH OHO, Canada. Children can send e-mails through www.canadapost.ca/santascorner/. While there, they can also play Flash games and download recipes, craft projects, and music-making projects. Santa will also be posting weekly updates to a blog at the site.
Another place where kids can connect with Santa is AskSanta.ca, a Microsoft Canada project in its third season. Using the site, which is designed like a pop-up storybook, children can send their Christmas wish list to Santa or even exchange instant messages with the Jolly Old Elf, using Windows Live Messenger, of course.
On the phone from his Toronto office, Paolo Pasquini, public relations manager for MSN Canada, told the Straight that the site was started by the Canadian marketing team. "We all grew up writing letters through Canada Post," he said, "but the generations have changed. We look at kids today and they are born and raised in the digital world."
In the first year, MSN Canada carried out an informal Hotmail campaign. "Last year, we had an elf spokesperson, and in the four weeks before the holidays, we had almost 70,000 e-mails sent to Santa," Pasquini explained.
More recently, the team has expanded the range of things that kids can do at the site, from instant messaging and e-mailing to a variety of activities. On the Santa's Workshop page you can download pictures to colour in, get lyrics for your favourite nonreligious Christmas songs, and create your own gift tags. In Mrs. Claus' Kitchen you'll find recipes for things like Reindeer Fudge and North Pole Snow Stacks. And you can play Reindeer Games to your heart's content.
"We wanted to create an interactive, rich entertainment experience for tech-savvy kids to explore," said Pasquini, "and a nice place for parents and kids to explore together."
Santa's got a blog here too, which you can access from the main page or at asksantaclaus.spaces.live.com/. "It's been a big day for me," he writes in one entry. "I hung up some mistletoe and some new red tinsel."
The AskSanta project has caught the attention of the parent company, and Pasquini says that a U.S. version of the site is coming next year. It will be similar to the Canadian site and may have additional components such as partnerships with charities. Pasquini expects that MSN France will also replicate the campaign–they helped build the French-language pages for the project, DemandeAuPereNoel.ca. "In Canada," he said, "we see this as our initiative that we want to grow."
But not in competition with Canada Post. "We don't want to take kids away from Canada Post," Pasquini said. "We think we complement each other."
The other thing we used to do when I was young was watch a special news report on television–it was probably on the CBC, but I don't recall exactly–that tracked Santa's progress as he travelled around the world. With GPS embedded in everything these days, that's probably become a much easier task. But I hope the tech train stops before we end up with a Web cam in the Claus bedroom. That I don't need.