If you aren't already, you'll soon be snared in that nexus between school days and Christmas, at a loss to fill children's plentiful time with fun activities.
After all, you're caroled out, staring at the Christmas tree has lost some of its initial charm and you'll go nuts if you have to watch anything featuring the Grinch one more time. You're wanting to rest but dealing with the restless.
Some humbugs may find Christmas tech tacky, but if the Internet is used correctly in the days leading up to Christmas, perhaps the only creature stirring will be a computer mouse.
For an overall experience, it would be tough to beat www.northpole.com. Oh, it has a few things for sale, mostly inexpensive stocking-stuffer items, but most of the site is devoted to free, just-plain-fun activities for kids to enjoy or to share with parents or other adults.
The site out-Christmases several other prominent holiday-heavy Web sites by a country mile. Two or three of its activities alone would top some Web sites' entire offerings.
A free "good deed" calendar and free computer wallpaper are available, as are 20 designs of free animated e-cards that can be personalized and sent to friends and family via a mouse click or two.
Recipes are listed for breads, cakes, cookies, candy, pies and other treats, and users can contribute their own concoctions for possible inclusion, with attribution.
The site also has an impressive lineup of Christmas music from Ringo Starr, the U.S. Air Force Band of the Rockies, the U.S. Air Force Band of Middle America and the Royal Canadian Artillery Band. Just a click away.
Music-lovers also will enjoy the sing-alongs that can be accessed through a Windows computer (sorry, Mac users) at the site's Christmas Karaoke. Lyrics are displayed while the music plays.
Looking for answers about Christmas from young inquisitors? This site can help by providing answers. How do reindeer fly? Why, they eat special corn. OK, they can't all be gems, but the site's list can help explain how Santa brings gifts to homes without chimneys and other questions from the curious.
Kids also can pass the time by playing online games, some of which help them learn such things as telling time and counting money.
A whole batch of educational activities (you'll need Adobe Acrobat Reader) are at the site and printer-friendly, helping the young with basic motor skills, learning letters, sound recognition, vocabulary, learning numbers, visual skills, working with positions, recognizing left and right and working on sizing.
People with Acrobat Reader can check out a dozen illustrated stories from Santa's workshop. Black-and-white versions are available for printing for kids to color.
The Acrobat Reader also is needed for another plum story activity at the site: personalized stories. Just input a few names and activities and virtually instantly they're inserted into one of three stories to read from the screen or print. Yep, you or your child can be the stars of "Elf for a Day," "Christmas Eve Cleanup" or "North Pole Christmas Party."
Kids who usually use crayons to scrawl a cute-but-illegible note to Santa will like the wish-list e-mail the site offers. Santa sends a personalized reply back, accessed by using a password. The full-page letter addressed to the child can be printed out. Parents also can arrange for Santa to send an e-mail card on the child's birthday.
The site's ElfChat feature lets children talk to elves Bif and Bonnie. Kids type a question about Christmas, Santa, the North Pole or elves, and the site's technology generates an answer.
Several Web sites offer Santa-tracking capabilities, but www.northpole.com has impressive partners in the venture: North American Aerospace Defense Command, Analytical Graphics Inc., America Online, Globelink International Services, MCI and Etheriel Web Publications.
NORAD also offers some cute "declassified" Santa files, which are Santa pictures taken surreptitiously in living rooms over the past four decades.
If your kids can somehow pull themselves away from that site, a few others await.
For example, the Web site www.Santa.com lets folks check out blogs created by Santa and Mrs. Claus and learn about U.S. geography, history and holiday folklore. Like related sites, it lets children write to Santa, send holiday e-cards or create holiday crafts. Christmas stories abound check out "The Gift of the Magi" or "A Kidnapped Santa Claus" as do recipes.
It too offers a chance to write to Santa. (Who knew he had a San Jose address? Must be his summer home.) The site says replies will arrive if e-mail addresses are provided, and some letters will be answered online.
GreetingsFromSanta.com has an online letter-builder. Step-by-step instructions lead the user to one of six stationery designs and message types. Users input custom information about the recipient and up to three items they want, plus three accomplishments that would explain why they're deserving of the gifts.
The finished letter is then mailed to the recipient from Santa Claus, Ind. (Get it? A letter from Santa Claus.)
The cost is $6.95 per letter, but hurry. The company, Santa's Depot Inc., says it takes up to 72 hours before Santa gets the letter to the post office, and overnight express delivery is available.
Folks not wanting to e-mail or snail-mail notes to Santa can just talk to him. The site www.claus.com lets children chat with Santa via his "Sleigh Phone" on Christmas Eve. A four-call "experience," costing $4.95, lets children get updates on how close he is to your home.
The site's Santa Spotter and Santa Scope give his location every hour, plus a running total of the number of cookies and glasses of milk he downs along the way and a flight journal noting his Eve activities.
The spotter-and-scope fun also is designed with an animated radar screen that supposedly zeroes in on your home. At the appropriate time, a "Children Awake" warning goes off, alerting young ones to check out the goodies left behind.
The Web site, created eight years ago, is run by Spunky Productions, a division of Ohio-based Universal Digital Communications. It hails itself as "the Merriest Place in Cyberspace" and says it is the Internet's most popular interactive Christmas site.
Can't wait until Christmas Eve for holiday fun? Well, www.claus.com also features sing-alongs, craft and recipe ideas, games and "updates" on North Pole activities via the Polar Post. Children can e-mail Santa and get a response, or receive an Honorary Elf Diploma in Elf School. It also includes Top 10 lists of how to get on the "naughty" and "nice" lists, plus a Nice-O-Meter to help gauge how you're doing.