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Santa Takes The Digital Plunge For Holiday 2020

Today is an important day in history that your high school teacher almost certainly forgot to tell you about. On this day, Oct. 24, 119 years ago in 1901, a 63-year-old schoolteacher named Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to successfully go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

Taylor was not the first person to attempt a plunge over the famous falls. In October 1829, Sam Patch jumped down the 175-foot Horseshoe Falls (the largest of the three waterfalls that make up Niagara Falls), but Taylor was the innovator who came up with the idea of adding a barrel to the trip. And so, with the help of two assistants, Taylor strapped herself into a leather harness inside an old wooden pickle barrel lined with cushions to break her fall, then hitched a boat ride out to be cut loose and sent sprawling down the falls.

A bit battered from the ride, but ultimately unharmed, 20 minutes later Taylor and her barrel washed up on shore.

Did Taylor succeed?

That is an interesting question. On the one hand, she did accomplish something no one before her ever had — surviving a ride down Niagara in a barrel. As a daredevil she was an undeniable success.

As an inspiration to others, her track record is a bit more mixed. She certainly did inspire many other people to take on Niagara Falls. Between 1901 and 1995, 15 other people gave it a shot. But only 10 of them actually survived. The barrel, as it turned out, was somewhat important to her success. Jesse Sharp and Robert Overcracker rode  a kayak and a jet ski, respectively, over the falls in 1990 and 1995 — and both died while taking the plunge.

But Taylor’s stated goal was not to be a daredevil or an inspiration — she wanted to be rich and famous. That didn’t quite pan out, as evidenced by the fact that until you read this, odds are you’d never heard the name Annie Edson Taylor before.

We at PYMNTS can’t in good conscience endorse following in her daring footsteps (or barrel steps). For one thing, it’s not safe, and for another it’s very much illegal and carries incredibly high fines. Still, we can’t help but appreciate her sense of derring-do when it came to pursuing her dreams of renown and riches and her complete willingness to think outside the box (and into the barrel).

After a 2020 that has been difficult by any measure, it can feel like this is a year for people like Annie Edson Taylor, as the COVID-19 pandemic essentially meant that we all — consumers, merchants, financial services professional — collectively woke up one morning to find we were going over the pandemic falls, and our best protection was going to be the digital barrel we built to go over in. And while there have been a lot of firms that didn’t survive the drop, and there will still be more of those to come, what has been perhaps encouragingly surprising is just how many buoyant barrels have gone over — and floated up to the surface on the other side.

And this week the ranks of those taking the great digital plunge have been joined by a perhaps unexpected player.

Santa Claus is going virtual.

Santa Claus Isn’t Coming To Town, But His Town’s Coming To Digital Devices 

As PYMNTS has previously reported, being a mall Santa is surprisingly serious business. They’ve been around since the 1840’s, and 2019 was a record year for Santa hirings nationwide.

“We can never fulfill all the requests we’re getting just because we don’t have enough Santas,” said Megan Price, director of customer experience at GigSalad.

According to Price, as of 2019 confirmed bookings for Santa were up 128 percent over the last four years.

“The number of Santas we have on the site has grown about 102 percent over the last four years,” Price said, noting that even with more reserves, there just isn’t enough Santa to go around. “People come every year and say they want to book a Santa. Usually we run out fairly quickly.”

Usually, but not in 2020 — as Santa’s are sitting out the season given COVID-19 social distancing restrictions make sitting on Santa’s lap basically impossible. Stores are shutting down their Christmas villages, even when those villages are iconic. Macy’s, the retailer that enshrined the department store Santa as a holiday institution in the 1947 film “Miracle on 34th Street,” has announced that Santa will not be making an appearance at any Macy’s stores this year for the first time in 159 years.

Instead, Macy’s has announced it is trying to recreate the holiday magic for children and families via a virtual portal  that will be available online from Nov. 27 to Dec. 24. The new virtual experience will allow up to three children per family to take part in the customized virtual experience at one time.

The experience will include a greeting from virtual elf tour guides who will guide children through Santa’s village and workshop, which will come with interactive features and games for child visitors. Participants will also have the option to digitally “meet” Santa via an interactive video chat to snap a selfie with Santa — and of course, update him on what holiday wish list.

“At Macy’s, the safety of our customers and colleagues is paramount,” said Susan Tercero, Macy’s vice president of branded entertainment. “To replicate the magical experience of visiting Macy’s Santaland for children and their families, we will shift to a virtual engagement this year. For many, visiting Santa at Macy’s has become a long-standing highlight of the holiday season.”

A tradition, she noted, that can’t be safely operated in the old way — but hopefully can be digitally updated enough to be enjoyable in an entirely new way.

Will customers go for a newly digitally imagined Santa? Time will tell, but it is notable that at least some shopping centers are hedging their bets and having a physical Santa at the ready.

But for the health-concerned and digitally-focused this season, snapping a selfie with Santa at a digital distance just might be the digital plunge they are looking for to keep the tradition alive, and the risk at bay.

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