DALLAS — "Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the way!" sang a few high-pitched voices inside Children's Medical Center Dallas. One of the singers was seven-year-old Tia Hackett, who is recovering from major heart surgery.
Another singer was an animated elf named Herby.
Through a laptop and an Internet connection, Herby and Tia talked directly to each other via Skype. Herby visited several hospital rooms on Wednesday afternoon and had one-on-one conversations with the patients from his desk at the North Pole.
"I hear you like American Dolls! Is that true?" Herby asked Tia. She replied shaking her head "yes. "
"Do you know what we feed the reindeer?" the elf asked.
"Magic acorns!" Tia replied.
"How do you know about magic acorns? Who have you been talking to?" Herby asked.
"My dad," she answered, with a smile.
The conversations were often amusing... and always honest. Herby has a direct link to Santa's "naughty or nice" list, so he is able to tell kids and their parents where they stand.
He often knows a lot about the kids he's talking with, and sometimes he knows things about their parents. He told one little boy he heard his mom makes good cookies. The boy responded, "Well, she burns them a lot."
Herby told him he'd be sure Santa brought new cookie sheets for Christmas.
"They just became kids again," said Tia's father, John Hackett, describing how the patients responded to the elf's online visit.
Herby asked Tia if they could be friends... or even best friends. "I don't know," answered Tia. Then she added, "No, because you're in the North Pole and I'm in Texas."
It sure felt like Herby was there.
In reality, the magic connection between the North Pole and hospitals across the country is a studio in Plano. Motus Digital, which does all kinds of special motion capture projects for video games and movies, provides Herby with the ability to Skype with kids.
He is a 3-D animated character, who can see and talk and listen.
Motus Digital operates its "Elf Hotline" for a few weeks before Christmas. It's a non-profit venture; they charge nothing for kids to Skype with Herby.
"I don't know who gets more out of it: Us or them," said Motus Digital creative director Michael Daubert.
Daubert wears special equipment to transmit information straight to and from Herby. And thanks to his special standing with the elf, Herby answered a few questions from us.
"A lot of these kids get nervous because they think if they're not at home Santa, doesn't see them," Herby explained. "That's not true. That's what I'm for. I go up and tell them he's still watching."
We asked if this was more fun than making toys and doing all the hard work elves have to do and he answered: "This is the best time! Even more fun than making presents!"
He was definitely making magic, evident from Tia's broad smile.
"Keep smiling that pretty smile," he told her.
"OK!" she said, adding: "Merry Christmas!"