Monday September 25, 2017

Is Santa's job safe... from drones?

Is Santa's job safe? 2:08

Listen 6:42

By Acey Rowe

I went to visit Santa Claus the other day.   

At his summer home.

Totally normal, I know.

Have you ever wondered where Santa Claus spends his summers? You'll find him (and Mrs. Claus, and the reindeer) at Santa's Village, a small theme park in Bracebridge, Ontario. Right in the middle of cottage-country-Muskoka. It's all white pines and fairy lights. It is as hokey as you would imagine and completely charming.

Acey Rowe and decoy Santa in the sleigh

Acey Rowe and a miniature, decoy Santa sit in Santa's sleigh (Julia Pagel)

Also, it figures Santa would spend his summers in Canada – on the 45th parallel, halfway between the equator and the North Pole. (This is the reasoning the sign at the park's entrance gives for his vacation spot.)

But I didn't come to talk to Santa about summers in Canada.

I came to talk to him about job security.

As work becomes increasingly mechanized, centralized, and automated… Santa's job has stayed the same for decades. That's not to mention the elves, who are a 3D printer and a conveyer belt waiting to happen.

So how is that? Why is Santa Claus impervious to technological change?

In our hearts and minds, why don't we welcome delivery drones down our chimneys every December the 24th? It's a gross idea, right? But why is that, when very soon this could be our reality?

RAW – Acey Rowe meets Santa's reindeer0:52

When I walked into his summer cottage (a log cabin with a red tin roof) he looked the part. A big, bushy, and very real white bead. A red suit, in a breathable linen (the summer version is worn with a white t-shirt).

When I sat down to talk to him I was expecting there to be a crack in the facade. That we'd wink and nudge and I'd see through to the man under the outfit, no matter how good his performance was.

But that is not what happened.

I started with my questions about delivery drones and mass-produced toys.

He told me that elves build toys with love in a way that machines can't, and that drones could never do his job because they can't watch the children grow up.

Right. Good.

Acey Rowe and Santa Claus

(Julia Pagel)

But then our conversation turned to the core of his job: the people. He told me about a little girl who has stuck with him, though all his years on the job.

A few years ago a family of four came to visit: mom, dad, and twins. The next year they came back. But this time there were only three.

Since the previous summer, one of the twins had died.

This little girl, the one left behind, has come to visit him every year since. As he told me about her, he started to quietly and unabashedly cry.

They can feel my heart and I can feel their heart. And they'll never be alone again as long as we're together. Some of the stories I get, Santa cries. A drone ain't gonna cry. A drone ain't going to show that child their heart.  - Santa Claus at Santa's Village, Bracebridge ON

I asked him what he said to her, because what do you say to a child in that moment? He told her he'd always be with her.

This guy didn't just look like the real deal, he was the real deal. As close as you can get.

A few minutes and a quick breather later he was back to his jolly self.

I could tell Santa was feeling better, because he put an elf's hat on me and loaded me into a festive red golf cart. It was time for me to take a tour of the park, with Santa as my guide.

Acey Rowe and Santa Claus ride a roller coaster

Acey and Santa take a ride on a roller coaster, one of Santa's favourite activities at Santa's Village. (By the way, Santa screams on roller coasters. A lot.) (Julia Pagel)

The following 20 minutes were among the most surreal things I have ever experienced.

The only thing I can compare it to is being in a celebrity's entourage. Everybody, parents and kids, looked at us as we zipped past in our red Christmas Golf Cart, their eyes ablaze with fanatic delight.  

And Santa had a "hello!" and a "you be good this year!" and a high five for everybody. I am so impressed he didn't run anyone over with the golf cart, because they were absolutely rushing him.

Acey interviews decoy Santa

(Julia Pagel)

This is when I saw a small but powerful piece of magic. Santa knew – and used –  the names of so many of the kids. He'd call them by name! And their eyes would light up, not with surprise, but with affirmation. Yes, he has known me my whole life! Read my letters! Been to my house!

Here's how I think he did it... My guess is that he heard the parents calling to their kids, cautioning them as they rushed the golf cart to not get under its wheels. And Santa, on a dime, processed those names and sent them right back.

From the inside I saw a quick-thinking man who was good at his job. From the outside, it looked like magic. And in a way, it was.

There was something deeply ironic about the whole thing. Theme parks are notoriously fake. We go to them to have fun with mechanical games and rides. They are filled with mechanized joy, but none of it could compare with the very human heart those kids saw in Santa.

Many thanks to Jamie Hopkins, Santa, Mrs. Claus and the whole team of elves at Santa's Village.

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