INDIANA EXCHANGE: Book features Santa Claus letters to southwest Indiana town …
‘Headaches’, ‘babies’ and ‘not strong enough to carry a sack’Baloney, I retorted. All on the nice list: Children excitedly receiving their gifts from Santa Claus who surprised them with his ‘appearance’ at the FHWA’s Charity Christmas Party.The public face of Christmas very much resembled what we would call a “traditional” Christmas, with fir trees, seasonal carols, shopping, greeting cards, candy, special foods and, especially, Santa Claus and his magical global gifting spree.
As part of a social experiment to determine how conditioned children are to gender stereotypes, the creative agency, Anomaly London, asked children: “If Santa was a woman, could she do the job?” Others cited child care as one of the reasons a “Ms Santa Claus” wouldn’t be viable: “If she had a baby she’d be like doing the presents, taking care of the baby, giving it milk…” Some children said “Mrs Christmas’” could not do the job efficiently as Santa’s sack “would be too heavy for a lady” and “she would get a headache”. She said she had only heard of stories from her mother about how Santa Claus would come down the chimney during Christmas to give away gifts to well-behaved children. “I am so happy now that I’ve met Santa. Despite one boy saying “girls aren’t any different than boys”, the video concludes with another child saying a female Santa would be better at “cooking” than handing out presents. He knows my name and where I’m from and while he politely bats off my incisive questioning – “What am I getting for Christmas?” – with some non-committal answers, he’s made a note of what I want come 25 December. (World peace, ideally.
Will Jeremy Corbyn be Prime Minister? “Probably not.” What’s the most popular present? “I think it is a tie.” But then the conversation comes to an abrupt end. “Are you real?” I ask, and the browser hosting our online chat crashes. Santa arrived from the North at Union Station, and then, starting a new annual tradition, he and his elves travelled by horse-drawn sleigh to the Queen St. store. Most of my childhood photos with good old Saint Nick feature my siblings and me in matching red sweaters: my younger brother grinning from ear to ear, my older sister smiling obediently, knowing it’s the most sensible way to get this over with already, and me. Each Christmas after that, the parade became more elaborate: one year Santa’s sleigh was drawn by actual reindeer; another culminated in Santa climbing up a ladder at the Eaton’s store and entering Toyland through the second-storey window.
I look like some sort of wizard because, as best as I can tell from my pose, I have no idea what to do with my jittery hands, which flutter into a kind of tense, outstretched position, as if I’m attempting to cast a spell on the photographer. This Santa is the Chatbox creation of American cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky, an expert in artificial intelligence and the co-founder of the AI laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Minsky produced the site little more than 10 years ago and while it is never going to pass the Turing Test, it is one of a number of ways in which young minds can engage online with Santa.
My annual letter to the big man would be a hand-written wish list, and I might leave a carrot and a small glass of alcohol out on Christmas Eve to keep Santa and Rudolph’s strength up. (“What’s not to like about whisky?” says Santabot, when I check what he thinks). The Star helped it along by publishing front-page “touching incidents,” such as the story of a family of five with an unemployed father who were found to be living “in most pitiable circumstances.” The children had “little in the way of clothes” and were “well nigh starving.” A deeply religious Methodist, “Holy Joe,” as he was called, was motivated to help the poor partly out of gratitude, because he too had “come up rough.” His father died in a train accident before his first birthday, leaving his mother to raise eight children. Morag Turnbull, the deputy head of external relations at the Royal Mail, says that the number of letters addressed to Father Christmas rose from 400,000 in 2013 to 600,000 last year, showing that the seasonal service – whereby children receive a response to their letters and have been doing so since 1963 – remains popular. “A team of elves at Royal Mail help Santa to reply to these special letters,” she says, revealing that Lego is, once again, the most requested toy of the year. Old home videos from Christmas Eve show my brother and sister excitedly preparing for Santa’s arrival, putting out snacks (Santa enjoyed Scotch and cookies at our house) and reindeer food (rice or carrots). Every so often the camera would pan past the couch, where I could be seen curled up in the fetal position, waiting for bedtime, putting us one step closer to morning, when the uncomfortable part would be behind us.
Both Atkinson and his close friend John Joseph Kelso, a Globe journalist who had written shocking exposés of child poverty and neglect in the city, believed children, as “raw material,” could be shaped into ideal future citizens if they were properly cared for from their earliest days. Each year, 20 million children head to Noradsanta.org, run by the North American Aerospace Defence Command, which has been following Santa for 60 years. Both sites allow children to track Father Christmas as though he were a standard delivery driver, albeit one who can fly for 34 hours non-stop around the globe at 2,924,100mph (as calculated by Arnold Pompos of Purdue University for the science magazine Focus). Even at Central Prison, the incarcerated men were to have “an extra of roast beef and plum pudding” in addition to their usual dinner of potatoes and bread.
I liken Santa these days to a raccoon because 1) both are scary, no matter how many reindeer you surround them with, 2) both will eat whatever garbage you leave lying out for them, and 3) I don’t want to encounter either of them in my living room. Scheduled automated calls are also being offered by dozens of phone apps purporting to act as the necessary “fixer” between child and Santa, with each one claiming to give the impression that the lucky child is chatting with the main man. Meanwhile, the A Call From Santa! app, developed by a team headed by Twan Claassen, is currently being used by 100,000 active users every day. “A phone call is an easily understandable concept even for small children,” Claassen says of the attraction of the apps. “It’s also relatively simple to make Santa sound realistic by choosing a talented voice actor and coming up with a good script.” Such scripts tend to work in the same way, peppering Father Christmas’s chat with a small number of closed questions followed by short pauses that invite predictable answers. “Santa also makes sure that he mentions the child’s age and gender as entered by the parents,” says Claassen. “This makes the call sound very natural.” Even so, Claassen thinks that there’s room for improvement. I would say it’s the persistence of the Santa Claus figure — that image of the jolly old elf with his long white beard, red costume and gift-bearing, flying sleigh. What makes this subject intriguing is that, despite childhood being an individual experience shaped by class, ethnicity, gender and religion, it is still universal.
The company has created 100 million professionally shot videos so far, all of them well-acted and voiced and appearing tailor-made, with photographs of children provided by parents woven in to short films featuring Santa. “Portable North Pole has become a modern tradition for tech-savvy families because it shares a personalised and thus highly emotional experience for the child,” says its communications and special projects manager Estelle Pigot. “Santa will encourage the child to try their best in the coming weeks”, she adds.
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