Business-like, isn't he?




    Writing Santa

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2007 First published in CUE BC Newsletter
    16 December 2007

    Despite claims on the Arctic from countries as varied as the USA, Russia, and Denmark, Canadians are convinced that the North Pole is in Canada, and that as a result, Santa is a fellow Canadian.

    Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Canada Post does a booming business in letters to Santa- postal code HOH OHO. Since 2001, Canada Post has also been handling Santa’s emails, replying to some 44,000 emails in 2006 (compared to over a million print letters each year).

    Starting in November, children can go to (also available in French). There, they’ll find a Santacast and Santa diary, online games, recipes and crafts, and even a shakable Santa snow-globe. And of course, a link to write to Santa.

    There, kids are asked to simply enter a name, an email address, and their letter to Santa. Assuming they’ve entered a valid email address (and if they enter an obviously mis-formed one, they’re informed of that fact), they get an immediate message from one of Santa’s elves, Pepper Ministik. And 4 days to a week later, an email message directly from Santa himself will appear in their Inbox.

    If you get a whole class to write, some children are bound to wonder whether everyone gets the same reply. In fact, there seem to be about five different replies—enough variety that most younger elementary students are satisfied that it’s a personal letter from Santa.

    Unfortunately, nothing in the email message- not even the message header- includes the child’s name, which is a bit awkward if, as I did, you get whole classes to write, all using the same reply-to address. (You can’t send multiple messages with the same name and email address, but you can have multiple children sharing a single email address).

    This November, Microsoft Canada also joined in to help Santa handle his email, using the memorable address ( en francais). The website is fancier than Canada Post’s (and may be slow to load). And while it’s apparently the third winter of operation, the site has undergone a major revision that still (at least as of the time I’m writing this, isn’t quite done). Click on the Post Office, and a scroll rolls down, with smaller fonts and smaller fields for typing than Canada Post’s, perhaps making it a bit harder for the littlest ones to manage.

    It asks for a bit more information than Canada Post, as well, though I don’t think it’s being collected as part of a nefarious marketing scheme. (There is a link to sign up for Microsoft’s Windows Live Hotmail but otherwise, it’s not an overtly commercial site). To send a message to Santa, children need to enter their first name, an email address, their province (from a drop-down list) and whether they are a boy or a girl.

    Unlike Canada Post, Microsoft doesn’t provide any immediate feedback after they’ve sent a letter. But they outdo Canada Post with the personalization of Santa’s response. Each response includes the child’s name (a very big plus when your whole class’s emails are coming to the same Inbox), and there are different replies for boys and girls—not in any particularly gender-biased way, but using words like ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘him’ and ‘her’ appropriately.

    But going to the site’s Reindeer Games link, children can only (at least as I write) access two of the promised five games. The others are ‘coming soon’. At least the recipes in Mrs. Claus’ Kitchen and the various songs and printable colouring pages and gift tags in Santa’s Workshop seem to be fully implemented.

    And like the diary Santa posts on Canada Post’s website, Windows Live’s Santa is updating his blog. Apparently, this Canadian initiative has caught the attention of Microsoft’s US parent and even MSN France, both of whom are planning their own versions for next year.

    If you’re encouraging children to email Santa, you may want to point out that the jolly old elf sometimes gets discouraged if children’s letters simply consist of a shopping list of desired presents. I point out to classes that a good letter—whether to grandma, a best friend, or to Santa should start off by telling some things about the writer and should ask some questions of the person who receives the letter. After that, it might be OK to mention one or two things that might be welcome as presents.

    In keeping with the holiday theme, it’s good to give as well as to receive. Students with Internet access may want to visit This site asks users of any age to identify synonyms. (Harass = a) sprint, b) annoy, c) toss, d) release for example). When correct answers are given, the words get harder; if an incorrect answer is given, the words get easier.

    For each correct answer, 20 grains of rice are donated through the United Nations to help end world hunger. (No rice is taken back for wrong answers).


    Ads appear at the bottom of each page, with the advertisers apparently paying the costs of the project. Having started on October 7, 2007, by the end of November over 4 billion grains of rice have been accounted for. That’s not only a lot of rice, but it’s a lot of clicking on correct synonyms.

    Grade 4-7 students at my school are really getting into this, especially since I started adding up the total rice donated by each class in a 20 minute session in the computer lab and writing it on my blackboard, letting the classes compete with one another.

    Rather than simply test student’s word knowledge, I use it as an opportunity to improve research skills. I show students how to open a second browser window and how they can use Google to quickly find definitions. In Google’s search field, type define: harass and press enter. At the speed of search, a number of definitions of ‘harass’ will appear.

    As a result, students learn to manage multiple on-screen windows, to use Google to find definitions, and to quickly scan definitions to determine meaning. All at the same time that they’re helping to feed the hungry and to help their class get a higher score than the other classes in the school.

    This might be as good as it gets.

    Happy High Tech Holidays!


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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at