Thursday, November 22, 2001

Santa Claus has put smiles on many children’s faces in his long lifetime. The legendary figure, who is the patron of Christmas in the United States and other countries, is associated with a fourth-century Christian saint, which means the old man must be about 1,700 years old by now.

Many children encounter Santa in person at the local mall. They get to sit on his lap and whisper in his ear that they have been good throughout the year and deserve a nice toy, like a firetruck or a football.

Christmas present and future may look a little different, however. Children can log on to a Web site and pop off a quick e-mail to the red-clothed, round man just to let him know he or she just has to get, for instance, the new interactive video game Xbox. A quick Internet search gives about a quarter-million matches for the search words “Santa” and “Claus.”

Some Web sites provide an opportunity for youngsters to write to the bearded man, read about his history, shop and track his travels.

One such site is at, managed by Norad, the North American Aerospace Defense (Command) in Colorado Springs, Colo., whose day-to-day operations focus on tracking possible missile strikes or airstrikes against the United States and Canada.

This time of year, concentrates on Santa’s whereabouts, a matter that is at least as important to many children as missile strikes. Norad has been tracking Santa’s travels around the world for more than 40 years, and since 1998, the tracking has been available online.

The tracking tradition started 46 years ago, when Norad’s predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command (Conad), also in Colorado Springs, started getting phone calls from local children who wanted to speak to Santa. It turned out a store mistakenly had given Conad’s phone number as a hot line to Santa.

A commander at the time realized how important the question of Santa’s whereabouts was and checked radar data for indications that Santa was headed south from the North Pole. Indeed, he was.

“It was then that Norad realized that we were in a good position to help children track Santa,” says Maj. Doug Martin, spokesman for the command.

The tracking starts around 5 a.m. on Christmas Eve, when Santa takes his sleigh from the North Pole to New Zealand. He then zigzags around the world, reaching Hawaii last.

Norad has been particularly busy this year because of the September 11 terrorist attacks and didn’t follow its tradition of checking up on Santa in the early fall, Maj. Martin says. Santa would never forget about his duties, though. On Nov. 5, Norad received the following e-mail:

“I realize how busy you have been lately. But would you kindly track me again this year? I find it so convenient because the children know they have to go to sleep before I arrive,” Santa said in his e-mail.

The site has millions of readers every year around Christmas and is available in six languages, including Spanish and Japanese. The site also gives a short history of Santa and provides holiday songs such as “Winter Wonderland” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” performed by the U.S. Air Force Band of the Rockies.

A site that provides some electronic commerce but mostly games and the ability to write to Santa and receive a response can be found at

“We had 7.5 million visitors last year,” says Liz Kronenberger, spokeswoman for the Atlanta-based site.

Ms. Kronenberger says she expects about 10 million visits this year during November and December.

One of the popular features on the site is the chance it gives children to communicate with Santa. Santa’s responses, Ms. Kronenberger reveals, are automated and selected randomly. An automated response could read something like, “Santa has taken your wish list under consideration,” she says. Children, she says, have never complained about the form-letter-like response.

Most children ask for toys, but there also are some who ask to meet celebrities or say they wish for happiness for people worldwide.

“Some of them ask for peace, and we think there is going to be an abundance of that [request], considering the tragic events of this year,” Ms. Kronenberger says.

The site advertises certain products but sells few things and doesn’t link to electronic-commerce sites, Ms. Kronenberger says.

None of the Santa sites, as of mid-November, were getting high traffic (about 100,000 or more hits a week), according to NetRatings, which measures business and private use of the Web.

“But that could change in the weeks to come,” says Christine Chan, spokeswoman for NetRatings. “It may just be too early.”

More Americans than ever are logging onto the Internet, according to NetRatings. In October, 115 million Americans logged on at home or at work, or both, which is 15 percent higher than during the comparable period last year, when100 million logged on.

Not only is overall Internet usage up, but so is electronic commerce.

“We’re expecting that $10 billion will be spent online this holiday season,” says Sean Kaldor, vice president of analytical services at NetRatings in Milpitas, Calif.

During the holidays last year, online shoppers spent $6.9 billion. Toys constitute the fourth-most-popular online shopping category, after apparel, books/music/video, and auctions. In the first two weeks of November, visits to online toy sites went up 66 percent, Mr. Kaldor says.

“We’re forecasting a fairly good season. We have no reason to become pessimistic I think consumers will continue to shop online and in stores,” he adds.

While online Santa sites and online shopping are prolific and popular, they are unlikely to cut into older traditions such as visiting Santa at the local mall anytime soon, says Eric Kulczycky, marketing and public relations director at the 250-store Tysons Corner Center.

“There is nothing like visiting Santa live and in technicolor,” Mr. Kulczycky says. “There is nothing like that experience, and it can’t be replicated by visiting a Web site.”

He says he expects about 15,000 children to visit Santa at Tysons Corner Center this season. Santa will be available at the mall every day through Christmas.

Santa at the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City also is unlikely to be affected by online traffic to Santa sites, says Mike Romstad, general manager for the 170-store mall at least not until parents are content with a photo of their child sitting on their computer’s keyboard instead of Santa’s lap.

“I see the Santa sites as a positive,” Mr. Romstad says. “I just think it’s another way for people to get in touch with Santa, and I think, if anything, it’s just going to pique children’s interest to go and see Santa.”

Mr. Romstad’s prediction seemed accurate on a recent Saturday afternoon, when the mall’s Santa had seen about 100 children in a few hours.

One of them was Denae Bowers, 71/2, of Fort Washington, who has been going to see Santa since she was 3 and says she plans to continue her tradition for the foreseeable future.

As she sat in Santa’s lap and listened to his kind and patient voice, she assured him she had been a good girl this whole year. When Santa asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she said with a big smile:

“A CD player and Britney Spears.”

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