Yes, Virginia, there is an @SantaClaus.
Santa has always been a master at toy making, but he has now become quite the gadget guru. He's responding to boys and girls through text messages, tweets, e-mails and is even doing some video conferencing live from the North Pole.
``The reality is that times change, people change, so does the North Pole,'' said Scott Steinberg, publisher of DigitalTrends.com. ``Kids see parents on their BlackBerries. Kids see parents texting in the middle of church,'' said Steinberg, who also has a daughter growing up with a digitally connected Santa.
SOCIAL SANTAHere's how you can use the latest technology to reach out to the North Pole.
On the Web:• noradsanta.org -- The North American Aerospace Defense Command tracks Santa's sleigh on Christmas Eve, with the help of Google Earth.
• ustream.tv -- Live webcam of Santa's office in the Artic Circle. Search for user SantaClausLive to see the feed from his indoor and outdoor cam.
• PortableNorthPole.tv -- Program a personalized video message for Santa to send your friend or family member of any age . . . whether they've been naughty or nice.
On the phone:
• AT&T customers can text Santa for free by sending their wish list to 1224
• Call Santa -- a free iPhone app at which you can call Santa and leave a message. There are several similar apps available in the iTunes store for children to talk and interact with Santa.
• California-based company FreeConferenceCall.com put up the number 951-262-3062 as a Santa Hotline at which you can listen to Santa's greeting and leave him a message.
``It's not a stretch for them to think that Santa's got a BlackBerry or a netbook in his sleigh.''
Over the years, Santa's had to keep up with the technology children use. For decades the North American Aerospace Defense Command has tracked Santa on Christmas Eve via radar. Fifteen years ago, ole St. Nick was firing up the modem and popping up in AOL chat rooms for kids, and parents were starting to get in touch with him through e-mail.
But now, it's all about mobile communication. You can text your wish list to Santa, send holiday greetings on Twitter or add him as a friend on Facebook to send him a virtual plate of cookies with milk. On top of Norad's radar blip, children now can get updates of his location by using a mobile version of Google Maps.
Paola Blac, a 5-year-old from Coral Gables, has been sending her wish list to Santa by e-mail every year using the eSanta program on her dad's Apple computer.
After she writes the letter, with her dad by her side, she hits send and her screen turns into a countdown as the letter is transmitted to Santa's Workshop with digital hums, whizzes and crackles -- much like the sounds of a dial-up Internet connection. It gives her a receipt to print out for her records, and within seconds Santa writes a reply -- which her father said was very similar to last year's message.
This year she also sent a wish list to Santa on her iPhone -- yes, her iPhone -- using a wish list application. She had forgotten to include a few things in the first letter, such as gifts her cousins would like.
``She said, `I didn't know I could use the iPhone to send letters to Santa,' '' said her dad, Enzo Balc. ``And I was worried she was going to start sending letters to Santa every day.''
Indeed, times have changed. Balc's 14-year-old daughter, Adriana, would hand write all her notes and drop them in the mail when she was younger. Hand written letters were much more of a process, Balc said. There was flipping through catalogs to get the toy's exact name, and if there was a mistake in Adriana's handwriting, she wanted to start it all over again.
But when Paola isn't sure about something, she just does a Google search. And there's no need to start from the beginning when there's a typo.
``The fact that it's electronic now makes it easier for everybody,'' Balc said. ``It's a lot of fun and at the same time, I'm just amazed at how she controls the computer so well.''
Parents with AT&T phones can have their kids send wish lists to Santa for free by texting it to the number 1224. He gives several different responses, such as:
``So you figured out how to text me, huh? Terrific! You can reply now and text me your wish list. This is so much more convenient than opening all those letters! I'll be sure to respond once I get back from feeding the reindeer. Those little fellows sure can eat! Ho! Ho! Ho!''
AT&T spokeswoman Kelly Starling, whose 5-year-old son has texted Santa, said this feature was meant for parents to have fun with their kids because they get instant feedback -- not designed with the idea that 5-year-olds have cellphones and are texting.
``Santa's cool now,'' Starling said. ``He has to be -- he doesn't have a choice. Just like parents don't have a choice. We have to text our kids -- they won't talk to us in any other format.''
Families with AT&T U-verse TV service can turn on the Santa Tracker on Channel 98. Viewers can read bios for Santa's reindeer, play sing-a-longs and games and watch live reports on Christmas Eve from the Santa News Network to track his sleigh as he travels around the globe.
Google Maps and Google Earth will be displaying his journey through the night on noradsanta.org. Families can download a mobile version by visiting m.noradsanta.org and track him on their phone's Web browser. And then there's the Twitter account @noradsanta.
Does all this make the legend feel any different to children today than it was for children who grew up before this technology?
Donald Easton-Brooks, a professor of early childhood education at the University of North Texas, says frequent interactions with Santa on video chats or phone calls might dampen the development of a child's imagination. His advice: Let a child have fun with writing to Santa and leaving him milk and cookies, but don't dwell constantly on it through technology.
``If you really want to make it magical,'' Balc said, ``it will be.''