Photo courtesy Cheryl Brenner: Cheryl Brenner’s children, Sabrina (from front), 5, Evan, 8, and Charlotte, 10, talk to Santa during an online meeting set up through MeetingSanta.com, a platform that lets families purchase virtual interactions with an authentic Santa. Brenner came up with MeetingSanta.com because she wanted her children to experience some holiday traditions this year.
Photo courtesy Cheryl Brenner: Cheryl Brenner’s children, Sabrina (from front), 5, Evan, 8, and Charlotte, 10, talk to Santa during an online meeting set up through MeetingSanta.com, a platform that lets families purchase virtual interactions with an authentic Santa. Brenner came up with MeetingSanta.com because she wanted her children to experience some holiday traditions this year.

Magnolia mom Cheryl Brenner wanted to recreate as much of the holiday spirit as she could for her family this year.

Brenner, who is a former teacher and current stay-at-home mom to Charlotte, 10, Evan, 8, and Sabrina, 5, knew Christmas would look a lot different this year because of COVID-19, but she didn’t want a holiday season void of all traditions.

“Everything has been cancelled,” Brenner said. “It’s been one thing after another, after another, after another.”

That includes activities like visiting Santa.

“For safety reasons, this obviously makes sense, but it is still disappointing for people who look forward to these holiday traditions,” Brenner said.

With the encouragement of her husband, Brenner said she decided to take action in October, soon after Macy’s announced it was canceling in-person visits to Santa after almost 160 years.

“I just said to my husband, I want the kids to be able to have some of these holiday traditions,” Brenner said. “He said, well, why can’t you do it.’ ”

With the help of a family friend familiar with internet technology, Brenner launched her idea to create a virtual way for her family to talk to Santa this year. When her friend suggested expanding the opportunity to all families, the idea took off faster than Santa’s reindeer on Christmas Eve.

After a quick turn around time, MeetingSanta.com is now up and running.

“It was so fun to work on a project that is so positive,” Brenner said of what is referred to as “Project George” at her home to keep it a secret from her children.

The website allows people to choose a safe holiday interaction with Santa by purchasing a package that suits their family and price point, Brenner said. Package options include everything from having Santa record a message for a child to scheduling a time and date on Zoom for a special visit with Santa.

Before the meet-up with Santa, parents can also leave notes to St. Nick with messages about their children, such as names of the child or children he will be meeting with, their ages, certain topics to stay away from or references to Christmases past.

“So, when they actually get to talk to Santa, it’s personalized,” Brenner said.

She said her son has a favorite stuffed animal he received for Christmas, and during his visit with his two sisters, Santa made it a point to mention the stuffed animal by name. Brenner said the look on her son’s face made it all worthwhile.

Because all their extended family lives in the Midwest, Brenner purchased additional viewing screens for her children’s 10-minute session so their grandparents could log in, as well.

Brenner said one of the main ideas behind “Project George” was ensuring it was an authentic experience, featuring a Santa or Santas with real beards.

“When we got into this, we had no idea how many organizations for real Santas there were,” Brenner said.

Nor had she considered that lining up potential Santas would not be difficult in 2020.

“They were excited. ... We had no idea how many Santas were out of work,” she said.

Brenner said she has received a lot of positive feedback from families who have purchased a package thus far.

Parents who have children with disabilities or sensory problems have told Brenner the virtual interactions are a positive way for their children to meet with Santa because they remove the stress created from standing in line in a crowded mall or actually having physical contact with a Santa.

Brenner said her family’s visit with Santa was also a perfect solution, especially for their 10-year-old who may lose the childlike wonder of Christmas in the coming years.

“This is really why we did it,” Brenner said. “She still believes. We didn’t want to miss keeping some of that holiday magic around just because of the pandemic.”

The online Santa experience also didn’t bother her children, who are already accustomed to remote learning, were an ideal way to keep them safe, especially since her younger daughter is a hugger, Brenner added.

Since the Meeting Santa website went live in November, Brenner said word is slowly getting out to more families.

“I think people right now are looking for ... just something fun and bright and just something to look forward to,” Brenner said.

She understands some people may still want their children to meet Santa in person, but said this option resonates with other families who are trying to carry on holiday traditions as best they can while quarantining.

“This kind of gives them the best of two worlds,” she said.

Brenner said the website is also easy to use — all people need is an email address and to have Zoom downloaded onto their computers. As well, with every package purchased, a Santa experience is being donated to a child.

For more information on packages or to schedule a visit with Santa, go to www.meetingsanta.com.