10 Ways Technology Is Transforming the Holidays

Web services, social networking put high-tech twist on holiday traditions.

December 03, 2010, 5:31 PM

Dec. 6, 2010— -- This is not your father's Christmas.

Time with family and friends, festive decorations, decadent meals and good cheer might still make for a merry holiday season. But the increasingly digitized and pixelated celebrations of today seem like a far cry from the quaint Norman Rockwell scenes of yesteryear.

The Internet, smartphones, social networking services and other innovations are putting high-tech twists on a whole range of holiday traditions.

Take a look below at a list of 10 ways technology is changing the holidays.

1. Christmas Trees Now Just a Few Clicks Away

It's still as much a symbol of Christmas as ever, but, nowadays, it's the Web -- not just the family wagon -- that helps people choose their holiday tree.

Costco started selling trees online a couple of years ago but, last month, Target joined the ranks of retailers willing to bring the holiday tradition into the digital age.

The National Christmas Tree Association told the Chicago Tribune that the number of association members that offer online sales has increased in recent years. But, convention hounds, don't despair.

According to Harris Interactive polls conducted for the National Christmas Tree Association, only 3 percent of the 28 million to 30 million farm-grown trees are sold online.

2. No Change for the Salvation Army? Just Charge It

Next time the Salvation Army Santa chases you down, saying you're out of cash can't be an excuse for not contributing.

For the first time, bell ringers toting the charity's iconic red kettles will be able to accept credit cards at locations nationwide.

Sally Gress, director of development for the Salvation Army of Broward County, Fla., told the Miami Herald that the credit card machines usually net larger donations. The average cash contribution is $2, but credit card donors typically give $15.

"I think it's great we're moving to more high-tech,'' she said. "Who goes shopping with a wad of cash anymore?''

3. The Annual Christmas Letter Fends Off Facebook

Annual holiday letters made sense when families didn't have Facebook to help them keep in touch. But now that daily status updates share news of everything from family vacations to college acceptances to wedding engagements, do we still need the yearly snail mail missive?

In a recent editorial blog post, the Christian Science Monitor asked "Will Facebook Spell the End of Christmas Letters?"

The U.S. Postal Service expects greeting cards and letters to drop from 3 billion to 2.9 billion between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Christian Science Monitor reports. But the writer, Francine Kiefer, said she'll likely include a real letter inside only half of the cards she sends out.

Still, she said, although Facebook offers constant connection, it doesn't constitute significant correspondence.

"Facebook skates over, it doesn't dive deep. It's crumbs, not a thick slice of Christmas stolen," she said. "Hmmm. Go deep. My friends and family might like that. Historians will, too."

Holiday Caroling Goes High-Tech

4.Cyber Christmas Caroling

If you're too cold to bring some musical cheer to neighbors, hop online and warm up your vocal chords for former American Idol contestant Katharine McPhee's Virtual Christmas Carol.

The singer is trying to rally fans to "make history" with the first-ever cyber Christmas Carol. With a webcam or video, fans can submit videos of themselves singing "Jingle Bells" until Dec. 7. The star will compile the submissions and turn them all into one single video of the popular holiday song.

5.Track Santa's Christmas Eve Ride With Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr

Since 1955, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has tracked Santa's Christmas Eve ride around the world. In the beginning, children could call a hotline staffed by volunteers for an up-the-minute report of Santa Claus' location.

Now kids can keep tabs on Santa's progress through a website, Google Earth and Maps, Twitter updates, Facebook messages, YouTube videos and Flickr photos.

The site is available in seven languages and went live Dec. 3.

6. GPS Tracking the Baby Jesus

Misfits planning to steal the Baby Jesus from church nativity scenes are in for a surprise.

More and more churches are attaching GPS devices to their Baby Jesus so that if a ne'er do well runs off with the key component of the manger scene, they can track it down.

Brick House Security, a security and surveillance technology company, launched a program five years ago, starting with 30 communities. Now they provide free GPS trackers to churches in more than 100 communities.

7. Hold the Holidays in Your Hands

No room for a Hanukkah menorah? No fireplace for a yule log? No matter which holiday you want to celebrate, there's a smartphone app for that.

Apple's iTunes app store is chock full of applications for holiday revelers of all kinds. The iMenorah application, for example, costs $2.99 and lets you light a virtual menorah. Just use your fingers to light the appropriate number of candles and then watch the candles burn down. The app even plays Hebrew songs.

For 99 cents, you can download the Sony Music Holiday Yule Log and watch a yule log glow on your iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad screen as holiday songs play.

The holiday section of the app store features apps for dreidel spinning, Christmas tree decorating, holiday baking and more.

8. High-Tech Holiday Shopping

Holiday shopping is hardly anything new, but thanks to technology, it's easier than ever (some might even say, too easy) to find gifts you want at a competitive price.

ShopSavvy, for example, is a free application for the iPhone and Android phones that uses a phone's camera to scan and read product barcodes to automatically compare prices among tens of thousands of online and brick-and-mortar retailers. It tells you where to buy the product and even provides reviews and directions to the store's location.

Applications like Coupon Sherpa and Coupons on Mobile -- MobiQpons (both free) help you find and aggregate coupons for the products you want.

Other websites, like Gifts.com and Hunch.com's Gift Finder, use souped up algorithms to help you choose presents for the lucky people on your holiday list.

Still other sites make it extra easy for kids and adults to let their loved ones know what's on their holiday wish lists. For example, Amazon.com offers a wish list feature that lets users indicate books they'd like to read next and Bing's new Shopping List option lets users mark off items they like online and then share the lists with friends on Facebook.

New Services Let Families Overcome Distance to Celebrate

9.Tele-Celebrating With Skype, Video Conferencing

Nothing beats being home for the holidays. But, now, families that can't be together, can at least celebrate together virtually.

Thanks to video-conferencing programs like Skype and Google video chat, all it takes is a webcam and Internet connection for families to overcome distances to celebrate.

For the holidays, a few companies are offering free or reduced-cost services. Between Dec. 17 and Jan. 2, video-conferencing company ooVoo will let up to six users participate in the same video call for as long as they like, at no cost. (Normally the company charges for calls with that number of people.)

Skype is partnering with the USO to help military families keep in touch during the holidays. Service personnel visiting USO centers in the Asia-Pacific can make free voice and video calls home via Skype.

10. Connected Cooks in the Kitchen

Extra cooks are not always welcome in the kitchen. And, especially around the holidays, traditional family recipes take center stage.

But new websites and iPhone applications are making it easier than ever for holiday cooks -- both professional and amateur -- to exchange homegrown tips and recipes.

Epicurious and AllRecipes offer free iPhone and iPod Touch applications that not only include easy to find recipes, but also user reviews of each one.

And the Food Network in the Kitchen application brings the channel's top chefs, like Rachael Ray and Bobby Flay, into your kitchen for $1.99.

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