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AOL: Yes, there is a Santa Claus

The holiday tradition of children writing letters to Santa has been updated in the digital age to include electronic mail.

The holiday tradition of children writing letters to Santa Claus has been updated in the digital age to include electronic mail.

America Online's address to St. Nick, "," received 175,000 messages this year, up from 50,000 last year. According to the online service, 250 employees volunteered their time to answer the flood of email sent to Santa.

"The holiday spirit generated through email to and from Santa demonstrates that the online world isn't about computers and modems. It's about people using technology to reach out and communicate with others around the globe," the company said in a statement.

Some say, however, that the Santa email line suffered the same traffic problems that have plagued the rest of AOL, and some of the responses were less than personal.

David Cassel, publisher of the highly critical AOL Watch newsletter, alleged the Santa home page on AOL, ostensibly a site for children, contains chat threads that are inappropriate for minors, including one about drugs. He also said some of the replies to Santa's email are "sloppily cut-and-pasted responses that don't really address the kids," and that some AOL members were unable to send mail Santa because of a 24-hour outage to the area.

Janine Dunne, an AOL spokesperson, denied the charge about the impersonal email responses.

"They are, each and every one, personal," she said. "Towards the end, when the volume of letters got really high, we brought on some extra help to make sure every letter was answered personally."

A brief scan of messages posted to the bulletin board showed that most messages were oriented toward Santa and the holidays.

The online service said the top-ten most requested gifts from Santa's email bag were as follows:

1. Barbie dolls and accessories
2. Beanie Babies
3. Roller Blades
4. Nintendo 64
5. Tamagotchi Virtual Pets
6. Giga Pets
7. Easy Bake ovens
8. Hanson gear
9. Sing and Snore Ernie
10. Hot Wheels Volcano Blaster