As Santa’s helper, Dennis Cheel is like no other. His voice is gentle. When he laughs, it is heartfelt. There is no padding or fake beard. He is the real deal.
Cheel is also a graduate of the world’s oldest Santa school, The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Michigan.
“It is the Harvard of Santa schools,” Cheel said. “It teaches etiquette, dress, demeanor and Santa history. There is even a special course that teaches you sign language.”
But what really sets Cheel apart is his method of interaction with children.
On weekday evenings, he chats online with children through Toronto Eaton Centre’s (TEC) Skype with Santa session. On weekends, he reads Christmas stories to a group of less than 100 children and parents during the Centre’s Story Time with Santa sessions.
Meredith Vlitas, senior marketing director at TEC, said that Skype with Santa is a free program offering children a personalized experience with Santa..
“What we are finding is that a lot of families are sitting down together to have the Skype session with Santa,” she said. “It is not just something the kids are doing, but it gives them real quality, family bonding time.”
Cheel said parents can sign up online for the 10-minute Skype sessions.
“At first they (the children) are kind of awe-struck for a while that Santa is on the other end,” he said. “That’s why we try to get a list when they sign up for Skype of the child’s age, the best gift they got last year and their favourite toy.”
Now in its second year, Vlitas said the program makes Santa and his helpers more accessible to children all over the world.
“He has skyped with a child from Hong Kong and a child in Australia,” she said. “We are hearing from a number of parents with children who are autistic, who find it to be a fantastic way for their children to have a great experience with Santa without doing it live and in person.”
This push to modernize Santa has even stretched to more traditional programs such as Canada Post’s Letters to Santa, now in its 30th year.
Eugene Knapik, of Canada Post media relations, said the letter to Santa is often the first letter a child writes and the first letter he or she receives.
“The volume of letters continues to be very strong,” he added. “It encourages literacy and it teaches kids writing skills.”
Knapik said Canada Post has 9,000 volunteer postal elves who help answer letters in over 30 languages – including Braille. Santa answers every letter in the language it is written in.
“There have now been two generations of letter-writers and postal elves involved in this holiday tradition,” he said. “Children who wrote some of the first letters to Santa 30 years ago are now helping their own children with their letters.”
The program has also expanded to include everyone on Santa’s team.
“This year we also have letters from Mrs. Claus,” he said. “We also have Santa on Youtube each year, where he will read some of the letters from kids.”