Letters to the Editor • Opinion
We already know how to prevent pandemics
The coronavirus pandemic has caused Santa to get creative and swap mall visits for virtual, digital chats with children and families all over the world. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

“When my 6-year-old realized we wouldn’t be going to the mall this year to talk to Santa,” says Liz Ranfeld, a mother of two in Indiana, “he was really sad.” But with covid infection rates rising in many parts of the country and at least one story of potential community exposure tied to a Santa photo op, Ranfeld knew she had to find a way to replicate the Santa Claus experience for her children while keeping her medically at-risk husband safe.

Fortunately, companies and enterprising individuals have more than risen to the challenge, with virtual Santas of all shapes and stripes. Although some of the charm of sitting in Santa’s lap cannot be replicated, these virtual Santas attempt to improve upon their mall-based brethren in other ways — for example, with personalized details (your children’s gift wishes or names of beloved family members) supplied before the visit. And for anyone who’s ever felt rushed with a mall Santa by the long line behind them, the five to 10 minutes allotted for many of these virtual experiences will seem improbably luxurious. Even Ranfeld’s 10-year-old daughter, long since grown out of sitting on Santa’s knee, pronounced the Zoom call her mother booked “pretty cool.”

The options are numerous and varied, and range in price from free to pricey, depending on the level of personalization and interaction desired.

Macy’s Santaland, the New York City Santa experience typically based out of the chain’s flagship store, has pivoted to a purely virtual, free experience rebranded as Santaland at Home. Once parents register online, kids can access their elf-guided Journey to the North Pole via the Santaland Express, stopping to engage in simple activities including building a snowman and decorating a Christmas tree, before arriving at Santa’s Workshop to meet and take a selfie with the main attraction himself using a webcam. (Note: There’s some product placement from sponsors along the way.) In keeping with Macy’s in-person experience, parents can choose a Black, Caucasian or Spanish-speaking Santa when they register. Santaland at Home is available through Dec. 24.

When my daughter asked if Santa was real, my answer was yes

For Siobhan Alvarez, a lifestyle blogger and mother of two in Atlanta, personalized videos from Santa via the Portable North Pole website/app were a welcome bright spot in a drawn-out period spent in quarantine. Although her sons, ages 2 and 1, are “so young that they don’t really realize that things are different this year,” the videos helped Alvarez feel that they “didn’t have to miss out altogether on how special that face-time interaction with Santa really does make this season.”

The website’s free option is a 90-second video where Santa addresses your child by name, displays their photo on the wall of an ice palace gallery, and mentions flying over their hometown. Paid options ($4.99-$13.99) include more personal touches and a menu of set pieces (a magical train ride, a Christmas Eve surprise) to choose from. Santa can also surprise your child with a phone call during a video viewing. Production values seem quite good, too, with snowy scenes involving real reindeer, lush Christmas trees sparkling with ornaments, and a realistic Santa with an abundantly full beard.

Ask Santa, an online interactive experience powered by artificial intelligence, comes from StoryFile, an AI start-up that aims to revolutionize the way we preserve and tell stories. Heather Maio-Smith, the company’s chief executive, says the inspiration for Ask Santa came to her when her local Home Depot’s Christmas decorations triggered the thought that many kids would likely have to forgo Santa visits this year. From then, it was a matter of a few weeks before StoryFile put the pieces in place for an interactive AI Santa with whom kids can discuss topics including his favorite reindeer and how he planned to protect himself from the coronavirus during his Christmas Eve travels. “Our whole tech is built on having those kinds of conversations,” Maio-Smith says. She notes also that use of Ask Santa, which has reached children in 170 countries, is free and unlimited, a way to let “kids have a little bit of holiday and Christmas magic.”

To access the platform, parents need to create an account. The platform itself is simple to use from any web browser. To ask Santa a question, kids should press and hold the microphone icon and talk slowly and clearly. They can also use the keyboard to type out questions or click on one of the icons along the bottom of the screen to hear a prerecorded question answered in real time by Santa.

For an experience more closely aligned to the mall visits we’re all familiar with, several companies offer interactive Zoom sessions with a Santa. For example, JingleRing, whose videoconferencing platform makes it look as if calls are being broadcast from North Pole TV, has among their choices Black, Spanish-speaking, and special-needs-conversant Santas and Mrs. Clauses. Similarly parents can choose a Black Santa when reserving a session with Santa’s Club, which offers “personalized virtual visits with Santa from the comfort and safety of home,” according to the company’s website.

Both companies encourage parents to provide details about the child before the session to help make it feel intimate and authentic. Ranfeld’s children, for example, were asked by their Santa Club’s Santa about specific gifts they received last year and whether they’ve seen their cousin recently. And to memorialize the visit, many companies provide a keepsake video of the interaction. Sessions at Santa’s Club and JingleRing can be reserved for dates through Dec. 24 and Jan. 7, respectively.

JingleRing costs $24.95-$49.95. Santa’s Club costs $34.99 for a video message or $49.99-$69.99 for a Zoom visit.

Other creative adaptations include those made by Airbnb, which has been selling in-person experiences since 2016 and shifted to virtual ones when the pandemic started. A quick search through the website found a Santa experience streamed from Lapland, Finland (where some say Santa’s official home is located); and a sign-language-fluent Santa leading holiday-themed vocabulary games in Athens, Ga.

Outschool, a marketplace of live online classes for kids, has several meet-Santa and holiday-themed classes in its inventory right now. Most of these one-session classes incorporate story time, a craft or a discussion of wish lists. Class sizes are kept low (most seem to accommodate one to eight kids) to ensure individual attention for each child. Prices vary, but most sessions we found ranged between $8 and $15 per child. And of course public libraries have long been a great free source of both Santa visits and holiday story times — and many have moved these activities online this year. A quick Google search will pull up lots of options.

For those who want the Santa photo but not necessarily the Santa experience, photographers like Keli Bayrouty in Vermont have a simple solution. “I have people send in cellphone shots that they took of their kids, and I put them in a frame with Santa or I edit them to look like they’re sitting on a bench with Santa behind them,” she writes in an email. For a photo where it looks like Santa is holding a framed photo of your kids, she charges $25 for two photos. For a photo that’s been edited to show Santa with the kids, she charges $25 per photo.

As with almost all areas of what used to be normal life, parents have had to adapt holiday expectations pretty quickly to the realities of a pandemic world. Some of the lessons learned and innovations created, however, have made visiting Santa a more accessible and inclusive activity. Here’s hoping that at least a few of them persist long after the dangers of the pandemic have passed.

Connie Chang writes about the second-generation immigrant experience, including the challenges of raising children at the intersection of multiple cultures and traditions. She lives in Silicon Valley, is a mother of three and knits in her spare time. Find Connie on Twitter @changcon.

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