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Washington Post

December 6, 2000

Every Day's a Holiday For High-Tech Santa



Yes, there is a Santa Claus, and he lives in Woodbridge. He's also a full-time employee of the Library of Congress and a Prince William County elected official. And, if you listen closely, he has a New Jersey accent.

And he keeps the Christmas season alive all year.

Jeff Guide, assistant chief for office systems and services at the Library of Congress and district director of Prince William Soil and Water Conservation, is also the brains behind SantaLand.com, a Web site for all things Christmas.

"It has become fun for me because it affects so many different people," he said. "A guy could [and did] offer me $200,000, but I wouldn't sell it.

"The Web site has quite a history, especially compared with sites that come and go as quickly as the annual shopping season.

SantaLand.com will be nine years old this month--the Internet equivalent of the Mesozoic Era. Founded in 1991, the site was an experimental project to test public interest in the Internet, which apparently did exist. Guide was asked to set up sites to see if people would get hooked on the Internet. So he created two Web sites that he figured would interest most people. One was about the weather and the other about Christmas.

He does not think the weather site is still up and running, but SantaLand.com continues to attract swarms of Internet--and Christmas--junkies.

It started as a "traditions" site, with stories about the meaning of Christmas and about Christmas carols. Today, it gives Internet users year-round access to shopping, holiday recipes, crafts, music, books, greeting cards, children's activities and Christmas stories.

Guide said his site had 780,000 unique visitors last year, and has had 500,000 so far this year.

Guide constantly updates the site with new content, usually stories. He also tries to figure out what people are looking for by tracking visitors' searches. "It's just a dynamic site that keeps growing," he said.

His most popular night is also his longest at the keyboard. On Christmas Eve, Guide tracks Santa's trek across the world via satellite images and posts it on the site at the "christmasevewithsanta" link. Last year, he had 15,000 views just for this special event. When Guide is busy tracking Santa, he stays up until about 3:30 a.m. "My wife has grown accustomed to it," he said.

His two children, a boy, 11, and girl, 6, know they have to go to bed when Santa is tracked to areas near the Eastern Shore or Ocean City.

Guide did not come to the Washington region to track Santa Claus; he came to track the environment and small businesses as a Ronald Reagan appointee, in both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Small Business Association.

His computer skills are all self-taught, as are his Christmas skills. He spent 1995 to 1999 honing his HTML abilities by looking at other people's sites and codes. Last year, he finally bought a computer program that does it all for him. He has been working on his Christmas skills since he was a child visiting New York City around Christmas. Now, he spends his Christmases making memories for others.

Until two years ago, Guide "helped" Santa answer all of the letters children send through the Web site, but he began farming that task out two years ago, after answering 2,500 letters in one year. In 1999, the contractor answered 8,500.

As a business, the site is a bust. Fortunately, it was never intended to be a money-making venture. Guide gets no income from the site, and actually spends a lot of money on it. He calculated the cost since its inception at more than $85,000, but that's just monetary. He can't even guess at the cost of his labor. The last three or four months of the year, he is on the computer daily until about midnight, he said. He spends about $150 a month on the site, usually on software and his Internet access.

But it's worth it, he says. "I love getting responses from kids."