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December 22, 1996

Yuletide greetings
on the World Wide Web

By Timothy C. Barmann

Of course the signs have always been there. He looks different at the mall than he does on TV. He's fat; chimneys are narrow. But a World Wide Web page posted by a Brown University student raises even more questions about Santa Claus and how he performs his amazing feat on Christmas Eve.

Andrew Duchon's The Physics of Santa and His Reindeer page is part of a collection of a half-dozen humorous stories the graduate student has posted on his Web site (http://www.cog.brown.edu/brochure/people/duchon/home.html). He's among several Rhode Islanders who have brought their Christmas greetings, stories, decorations, prayers and even songs to the Web.

Duchon lives in Providence and is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in cognitive sciences at Brown. He explained that he studies the use of computers to help understand how people figure how to get where they are going.

That may explain Duchon's interest in the story which examines exactly how Santa travels from house to house on Christmas Eve.

"Santa has 31 hours of Christmas to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth, assuming he travels east to west,'' says the story. "This is to say that for each Christian household with good children, Santa has 1/1000 of a second to park, hop out of the sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left, get back up the chimney, get back into the sleigh and move on to the next house.''

It makes you think twice about whether you really should leave cookies out on Christmas Eve.

Duchon didn't write the story and he's not sure who did -- it was e-mailed to him last year by a friend. Another story whose author is unknown that Duchon posted is especially fitting these days: Downsizing Santa.

It begins: "The recent announcement that Donner and Blitzen have elected to take the early reindeer retirement package has triggered a good deal of concern about whether they will be replaced, and about other restructuring decisions at the North Pole.'' (Parents, note that some of Duchon's stories are adult-oriented.)

Something is brewing

Richard Doddio works all night as a computer technician for Citizens Bank. Coffee helps him stay awake, which accounts for the theme on his Web pages.

His "Coffee Christmas Page'' (http://users.ids.net/~richd/coffxmas.html) can rival any traditional greeting card, even the fancy ones that play music.

Visitors are treated to a collection of tiny candy canes and ornaments that twinkle, tree lights that blink, and a little Christmas tree that sparkles.

Below all the glitz is a picture of little Jeffrey Doddio, Richard's 4-year-old son. Doddio said he created the page for him.

"It was just a little bitty thing to do for him,'' he said.

While you're there, you can click on the speaker icon and hear the holiday favorite, O Christmas Tree.

'The Twelve Steps'

There's another place on the Web you can hear some Christmas music, though chances are good you've never heard these songs before.

They're found on a Web site (http://www.ids.net/pmw/) by Providence Music Works, a local record and promotion agency, which has put out a CD called The Twelve Steps of Christmas and other Holiday Fare.

The album is a compilation of original Christmas songs performed by folk musicians from Rhode Island and Boston and as far away as England and Newfoundland.

Rhode Island musicians John Fuzek and Jeff Olson are the brains behind the project, as well as two of the artists who sing and play guitar on the CD. The idea Providence Music Works is to promote local talent, of which there is plenty, said Olson. The hard part is getting music fans interested in local music, he said, and the Christmas theme will hopefully give them more exposure.

Short clips from three songs from the CD, including one by Fuzek, can be heard on the Web site. The quality is great, but be prepared for some long downloads for each of the clips.

The beautiful illustration on the top of the Web page, which shows Santa Claus and a mosaic of feet drawings, was done by Fuzek's mother, Dianne.

The Internet is not only a marketing outlet for the CD, it also played a vital role in putting it together, Olson said.

"I don't think it would have been possible to do this without the Internet,'' he said. He and Fuzek used e-mail and discussion groups to solicit material from other folk artists, and to communicate back and forth with those who were finally selected to be on the CD.

"Some of these people we've never actually spoken to on the phone,'' said Fuzek.

Father Finelli

You might not expect to find a priest while trolling around in cyberspace, but that's where I met Father Jay A. Finelli.

He's the assistant pastor at St. Francis Xavier parish in East Providence, and he's also the proprietor of Father Finelli's Christmas Page (http://www.ids.net/~jaf/christmas.html), one of several religion-oriented sites he's created over the past year.

Some of his pages could pass for those designed by a professional, though he said he's had no formal computer training, except for a graphic-design course at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Finelli is a Woonsocket native who became a Catholic priest in 1992. He's been a computer enthusiast for about eight years, and last year, he discovered the Internet.

"I saw it as a great tool for evangelization,'' said the 35-year-old priest.

Pulling up his Christmas page is little like stepping into church. You won't find any pictures of reindeer or stories about Santa Claus here.

"Not that anything's wrong with the secular symbols,'' he said by telephone. "But I'm trying to send a message that Christmas is a time to have fun, but it's also a time to renew ourselves spiritually.''

What you'll find are prayers, pictures of religious paintings and the priest's message admonishing Catholics not to forget what Christmas is all about.

"Quite often we miss the true meaning of Christmas and lose the focus from Jesus and from our loved ones,'' he said. "We're so caught up in shopping and running around. I wanted to make this page a vehicle for people to find the scripture passages for the season of Advent.''

His pages have attracted the attention of other Catholics and clergy. He gets anywhere from 6 to 15 e-mail messages a day, and he faithfully answers each one, he said, if a little late.

"Some are shocked to see a Catholic priest on the Web,'' he said, "but they like it."

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the On Line page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.