Web-savvy Santa changing the face of Christmas
Matthew Coutts, ctvtoronto.ca
Published Saturday, December 3, 2011 7:17PM EST
Visiting the mall to meet Santa Claus and sit on his knee is a Christmas tradition as old as eggnog and as timeless as mistletoe – one that has given children a tangible connection to the Yuletide mystery man for generations.
But with a famed Toronto shopping mall doing away with the tradition in favour of a more web-savvy Saint Nick, some fear the rush to innovate will disconnect the Christmas mythology from the traditions of their childhood.
After a century of offering downtown Toronto children a chance to meet Santa in person, the Toronto Eaton Centre has closed Santa's Village. It will instead embrace the Internet and social media by giving children a chance to video chat with Santa Claus from his workshop at the North Pole.
The Eaton Centre launched its modernized Christmas tradition in late November, offering children across Canada free 10-minute sessions through Skype – a web-based video conferencing platform – every weeknight between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.
"We have had tremendous response from the parents and children who participated in our program and we are really pleased about that," Meredith Vlitas, marketing director for the Eaton Centre, told CTV News.
"Certainly for Santa, he has been fantastic with getting on board the Skype program. If you asked him as well he would say that when you see the happiness in the children's faces when he speaks with them, it makes for a really magical time."
The Christmas tradition of meeting Santa Claus at the downtown mall dates back to 1869 when the Eaton family store was merely a downtown dry goods shop. It survived as the store went through massive expansions in the 1970s and when Cadillac Fairview bought the shopping mall in 1999.
For some parents, modernizing the Christmas experience is a blessing and a curse. While technology-literate children are likely to appreciate the connectivity, the end result could be very different from what they experienced in their own childhood.
The hand-written letters to the North Pole and carol singing beloved by one generation could be entirely replaced with Christmas wish list iPhone apps and YouTube videos of children singing, "I Saw Mommy Skyping Santa Claus."
"Since I was a little girl we have always come down here. When my daughter was born we came down every year," said Joanne Comisso, a Burlington, Ont. resident who brought her eight-year-old daughter Kiara to meet Santa.
"I am disgusted, actually. I took her out of school for the day. I don't want to Skype with Santa Claus."
Zuzu McGee, a Toronto resident in her mid-20s, has visited the Eaton Centre for years just to get a personal moment with Santa. She wandered the entire mall looking for Santa's Village before someone told her it had been replaced by the online alternative.
"It is just such a great Toronto tradition. Santa and the Eaton family go hand-in-hand. It is a big thing missing from the mall," McGee said. "I know it is babyish to be upset about it but I am ruined. It is really sad."
Still, the Skyping Santa Claus is just the latest way technology has modernized the Christmas season.
NORAD has been issuing updates from their satellites on Santa's location on Christmas Eve for years and scores of companies and charities have created ways for children to reach out through email, instant messaging or other electronic means.
Fairview Cadillac, the company that now owns the Eaton Centre, says the traditional lineups couldn't be done any more but the Skype option gives a more unique and personal experience and saves children and their parents from standing in line for hours for a few brief moments on Santa's lap.
For those who desire a touch of tradition, the Eaton Centre is offering a storybook session every weekend morning, where children can gather and listen as Santa reads a Christmas book. Vlitas, the Eaton Centre spokesperson, says the storebook session still gives children the chance to sit on Santa's lap for a photograph.
Three other Cadillac Fairview malls in the Toronto area still offer the traditional Santa experience.
With files from CTV News' John Vennevalley-Rao
Matthew Coutts is on Twitter at @mrcoutts