MEET the Warrington families who are determined to keep the magic of Christmas alive for youngsters during a pandemic.

It has been a tough year, even for Santa with most grotto experiences cancelled to curb the spread of coronavirus.

But Father Christmas can still talk to children during the festive season thanks to innovative businesses that are arranging video calls 'to Lapland'.

Among the virtual grotto experiences this year are Santa's Lapland Live, run by Lucy McLennan in Appleton, and Lymm-based 'Santa Comes To Tea At Your House' with Helen and Brett Nurse.

Lucy, mum to Edward, 11, and Jack, seven, said: "According to a recent survey, 60 per cent of parents don't feel comfortable taking their children to a grotto this year.

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"As a mum I understand this but I didn't want children to miss out on having the magical experience of being able to see and talk to Santa.

"Being able to do this event during what has been a tough year for everyone has been brilliant as being able to give families such a magical experience has been really positive."

Lucy was made redundant from her job as an executive producer for ITV shows like Judge Rinder during the crisis.

She added: "I left ITV in October and the idea for the virtual grotto came about as I was inspired by my two boys Edward and Jack and all the events and traditions they have missed out on this year.

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"So, using my TV experience I wanted to be able to create a premium Christmas grotto that families across the UK could enjoy."

Helen and Brett Nurse also used their professional experience to quickly adapt.

Before the pandemic, the couple ran themed events for under 10s all over the UK through their company, Wonder Adventures.

Last year they started to develop an online treasure hunt which meant moving to a digital model in March – when they had to cancel all their existing events – was not as challenging as it might otherwise have been.

Helen and Brett also run a media production company called Capture 1 with broadcast equipment at their fingertips – so the idea for a virtual meet-up with Santa soon grew.

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Each live streamed event is personalised for the youngsters in attendance.

Helen, who has lived in Lymm for 13 years, said: "It's set up very much like a live TV show, but with the added feature of live chat where adults can interact and Father Christmas can respond live to some of these comments and shout outs.

"Those who have taken part in our previous online events such as Easter Bunny Live and the Halloween party have said how amazing it has been for the kids and also for them and for their family time.

"They said how it inspired them to have fun time together, it was different and the kids loved it and stayed engaged throughout. We have also got a lot of messages of ‘thank you’ for doing this – parents seem genuinely grateful for providing this."

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With so much focus on Covid-19 and Christmas restrictions, Helen reckons the virtual grotto helps keep the 'magic and a sense of hope alive'.

The mum-of-three to George, 13, Daisy, 11, and Charlie, four, added: "It’s about saying ‘we can’t go out’ rather than ‘Santa can’t come’ and so delivering this magical experience in their home is a way of bringing them fun, magic and excitement and we don’t even see it as a ‘lesser’ alternative.

"We think it is going to be even better than going to a grotto in lots of ways – no queueing, realistic backdrops and virtual aspects such as the virtual sleigh ride during a 40-minute interactive experience.

"Also being at home allows children who are less confident or nervous in certain situations to engage more fully as they are in their own environment."

It has been a similar story for Lucy who has had more than 100 bookings through her new company, Northern Star Events.

Lucy, who has more than 25 years' experience on TV including BBC productions, said: "I'm hoping Santa's Lapland Live will grow and become an annual event for Northern Star and next year I see potential for other virtual events and events in Warrington bringing my experience and TV contacts to the town.

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"Edward and Jack are very excited that Santa is working with us this year – Jack is desperate to get involved and be an elf."

Helen added: "It is critical for me for my children to be young as long as possible – they have so much pressure put on them from such an early age nowadays.

"There are so many important lessons and values that can be learnt from the Christmas stories and traditions and these are so important for children to experience. And on a more basic level it’s about having fun, having time together as a family and not taking life too seriously."

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