Santa Claus has a problem.
Aviation authorities approve flying reindeer only on Christmas Eve — which means Santa must park the sleigh the rest of December when he's out listening to kids' Christmas wish lists.
The inconvenience is taking a toll. And parents, frustrated by long lines, are primed for an easier way to visit Mr. Claus.
So this Santa, who is Ed Taylor from Ashland, Ore., most of the year, is sinking his cold toes deeper into the digital age — beyond using his smartphone's GPS to navigate.
So far this year, he's fielded thousands of live calls and recorded several thousand personalized messages sent over the Internet through a service called HelloSanta.com.
"Online shopping, look at how that has exponentially grown," he said. "It has to make sense for Santa to go in that same direction. It's just so cool. It's so now."
To show how it's done, Santa set up at a friend's house in Torrance between corporate holiday party stops in Southern California. He clamps a fireplace backdrop onto an easel. He prepares his beard — last trimmed in May — to a cotton-candy stiffness with Schwarzkopf got2b Glued Blasting Freeze Spray. He snuggles into his warm coat — a $1,000 custom design from Adele's of Hollywood. He slips on white gloves, tightens his black boots, puts on his hat, and it's go time.
Resting on a discarded Amazon.com box is Santa's Dell Inspiron laptop. From a seat in a dining room chair, he's ready to record a message for Roman, a kindergartner who loves playing Legos with his father but needs to listen more in class. Though Santa knows all about children, the Hello Santa technology gives parents the option to share some details to jog Santa's memory, help with pronunciations and suggest some specific changes in behavior.
Three, two, one and boom. A script appears and the camera indicator light powers on.
"Ho, ho, hooo! Roman! It's me, Santa Claus," a bobbing Mr. Claus belts out. "There's no question about it, Roman, you've made the nice list!"
Santa has his routine down. Each call ends with a "Bah-bye, ho ho ho."
"That's it," he says after a 2-minute, 11-second recording. He'll do two or three takes to perfect the message if needed.
Parents pay $10 for a recorded message and $20 for a live call. Roman's recording is good on the first take. Off to a live call with soft-spoken Robbie.
What does Robbie want for Christmas? An Iron Man suit. A new Razor scooter. A Pan Balance toy. A dreidel game.
"Uh...I want...uh, did you know I like Batman?" Robbie says.
"Yes, I did know that," Santa replies before asking Robbie about his pets.
"Simon's pooping," the child says.
Santa chuckles. A mom in the video's background shakes her head. Santa shifts the conversation toward reindeer and then reminds Robbie to leave out some cookies on Christmas Eve.
Mrs. Claus lets Santa know time's up. "Bah-bye! Ho ho ho," he says.
Santa was turned on to video appearances in 2011 after encouragement from his elf crew (most of them aspiring actors) at the Westfield Century City mall. Last year, three tech-savvy elves persuaded him to give video chat a try.
Now he doesn't worry about any inappropriate-touching complaints any time he gives a hug. He doesn't have to super-dose vitamin C to fend off concerns about catching a cold from a sick child. Less traveling means fewer stiff legs and achy joints.
On the other end, Hello Santa mobile apps allow people to call or watch a message from anywhere with an Internet connection.
Not all kids are jazzed by Santa. Some find him weird and scary. But he can't remember seeing a kid fearful during a video chat.
"It's kind of like Santa is on TV," he said. "It's non-threatening."
And it's a vast improvement on the typical smile-and-snap assembly line at the malls. He barely gets a chance to ask what the kids want for Christmas.
"It's all about that snapshot," he said. "There's that second that both the eyes are going in the right direction, the smile's right and then click. It happens in an instant."
With chat, the keepsake becomes not a photograph but a video that captures wishes, voices and personalities.
"I look at it and say, wow, as a parent what would I rather look back upon?" he said.