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Christmas spirit can live inside a computer

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Charlie Bowen Charlie Bowen
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Charlie Bowen is a writer, teacher and web designer. He lives in Huntington.

It was 94 degrees, and my mother was singing carols as we toted a miniature Christmas tree through the streets of White Sulphur Springs. Only Mom could have the Christmas spirit on such a breezeless late summer day when the air hung fat and loose like the smoky bad breath of a barbecue.

But then, my mother never lost her zeal for this season. Wherever she lived in her 80 years, she held firm to the same holiday traditions. 

For instance, she set aside the day after Thanksgiving to begin six weeks of playing nothing but Christmas music on her old stereo. That also was the day she began transforming her house or apartment into her latest sugar-plum vision of Santa's workshop, deploying ornaments from an ever-growing collection that could have decorated a dozen homes. And it was in the interest of expanding that trove of twinkling trinkets that brought Christmas to her mind on that particular sweltering day in August.

We had taken Mom to White Sulphur Springs to amble around the beautiful grounds of The Greenbrier after a nice lunch at Draper's. Our surprise for her would be a walking tour of the then-recently opened bunker, the once top secret government relocation facility for Congress. It is the massive fallout shelter that was carved in the mountainside beneath the famous resort in the 1950s. My mother, as a newlywed during the Eisenhower years, certainly would find this Cold War time capsule fascinating, we thought, and she did. 

But the bunker wasn't the highlight of the trip.

"Oh, what's that?" she said when we had finished our touring and were resting near the front gates of The Old White. 

We followed her finger, though we already knew what she had spied: the Christmas Shop at the Depot, the year-round Yuletide emporium located in the 1930s railway station across the tracks from the Greenbrier. For the next hour we strolled the aisles as Santas and nutcrackers, snowmen and elves lined up to follow her home. I got to carry the little Christmas tree that she determined would be just perfect for ... "oh, you know, that one spot ... ."

With all this, it won't surprise you to learn that (1) Christmas also was the reason I finally persuaded my mother to get her first computer, and (2) the machine came into her life, not as a tool or a toy, but as yet another addition to her Christmas trimmings.

It happened right after I found her one morning sitting in my dark office staring with child-like reverence at my computer screen. Depicted on the monitor was a lonely spruce tree standing in a dark field while around it, ever broader bands of snowflakes swirled, starting as flurries, ending as a blizzard.

"What is this?" she whispered.

"It's a screensaver, Mom."

"I have to have one!"

We are, I suspect, the only people ever to buy a computer in order to run a screensaver.

Of course, once the computer came to live with her, she found other uses. She created her own Christmas cards and birthday cards, for instance, writing the verses for them herself and printing them out for mailing. A consummate game-player, she always had Scrabble and Yahtzee going on the screen. She mastered email, but passed away before Facebook and Twitter could capture her imagination. And that snowy screensaver continued to be a centerpiece in her Christmas décor.

Mom would be thrilled with how extensively the holidays are celebrated in the cyber world these days. Here are just a half dozen online features and apps she would have loved:

  • Norad Tracks Santa. Since 1955, the North American Aerospace Defense Command has taken to the airwaves to track Santa's yuletide journey. Earlier this month it redesigned its website (noradsanta.org) to feature a holiday countdown, daily games and activities, videos, music and more. Beyond a new look, new features include a 3D globe and new interactive games. Also, starting Dec. 24, website visitors can watch Santa make preparations for his flight through the Bing maps and Cesium technology to track Santa with NORAD in 2D and 3D. 
  • Merry-Christmas.com offers Christmas games and stories, recipes and music, even jokes and the history of holiday traditions. 
  • And for a broader view of the season, check out holidays.net, which has extensive entries about Christmas, but also much on Chanukah, Kwanzaa and other holidays around the world. 
  • Talking Santa. Think your kids would like to chat up Santa? This iPad app is a ball. You can either direct Santa to say something specifically or play around with some of the comical animations. Also, you can customize videos, Christmas cards and messages, and send them via email, text or social media site. 
  • Holiday Time Machine. Here's an app for some of us older kids, letting you hitch a ride with the ghost of Christmas past. Just pick a year and enjoy TV shows, music, and advertisements from that specific time. This app will have something for everyone as it dates back to as far as 1898 and has more than 2,500 videos. 
  • Christmas Carolizer. Finally, speaking of things past, you can use the tablet technology to help revive the tradition of caroling. Use the Christmas Carolizer app, you can pick from a range of seasonal favorites and sing along karaoke style. And you can use the app to create customized Christmas cards with your pictures to share with your online family and friends via Twitter, Facebook or email.