Google just gave me a legitimate reason to avoid work on Christmas Eve

Santa Tracker hero image
(Image credit: Google)

As I'm sorting out some last-minute updates at work on Christmas Eve, I see mention of Google's Santa Tracker in our Slack group. "What's that all about?" I wonder. And before I know it, I'm watching Santa fly across the globe in real time. He's just left Singapore, at the time of writing, and is currently dumping a load of presents over Broome, Australia. Where will he go next?

Before I know it I've been entranced by what amounts to nothing more than a slightly clever, pre-programmed live tracker. I'm relieved to see Santa wearing a mask as he makes his rounds, and delighted by the postcards he's sending me at the bottom right of the screen. Who knew that globetrotting with a digital Saint Nick could be so mesmerizing?

I have to escape. I have work to do, after all. Santa's good company, but he's too busy to be writing news about CES 2022. As I go to close the Santa Tracker extension's window, my eye catches a menu icon in the top left. It dawns on me there's more to this Santa Tracker than meets the eye. Clicking that icon, for better or worse, made me stick around Santa Tracker far longer than I had planned.

A stocking full of wonder

Santa Tracker 2021 activities

(Image credit: Google)

As it turns out, the Santa Tracker's sole purpose wasn't to track Santa. In the plot twist of the year, the extension was actually loaded with bite-sized distractions, much like that tin of Celebrations your dad tells you not to touch until after Christmas dinner.

The activities and minigames on offer here are clearly aimed at kids, featuring bright and blocky visuals and simple to grasp play elements. What's most impressive, though, is that while each individual activity is simple, the sheer wealth of content on offer is surprisingly robust.

My first port of call was the Penguin Dash minigame, which I honestly think is the best of the bunch. You guide a penguin through an obstacle course, making sure he doesn't fall into the icy water on his way to the finish line in each level. It's simple, but oddly compelling, especially with the various hazards strewn about each level.

From there I checked out a few other games on offer, which were equally simple affair, but fun for a few minutes' distraction. But there's more to the 2021 Santa Tracker than a few cheap amusements. A lot of it is actually quite productive, and educational.

Lessons from the North Pole

Santa Tracker activities list

(Image credit: Google)

Two of the apps in the Santa Tracker that immediately caught my eye were a couple of programming-centric activities: Code Boogie and Code Lab. Both presented coding in an accessible way, challenging players to drag and drop "blocks" of code to simulate various commands. It's not immensely challenging, but the cool thing is that you can view the Javascript code that was used after you've completed a segment.

Similarly fantastic was the Christmas Traditions activity. This is simply a map of the globe, with several pins pointed at certain countries. The app does what it says on the tin, presenting interesting factoids about how each country celebrates Christmas or, alternatively, a quirky point of interest that makes those celebrations unique. 

For example, after learning about the 'kallikántzari,' gremlins who emerge from the center of the earth to frighten people and eat all their Christmas food, I'm warier than ever about visiting Greece in December. 

Good Golly Google

Santa Tracker overview

(Image credit: Google)

Google, of course, is no stranger to pushing the boat out when it comes to celebrations both big and small. Its Tokyo 2020 Olympics offering, Doodle Champion Island Games, was a decently lengthy action game with a delightful pixel aesthetic and plenty of varied activities to try out. The feat made Google's fully playable version of Pac-Man seem to pale a little in comparison.

The point is that it's great to see Google get progressively more ambitious with not just its long-running series of Google Doodles, but with its seasonal offerings, too. Of course, 2021 isn't the first year that Santa Tracker has been around, but the current iteration is more fully-featured than it's ever been. So much so that we have to imagine the developers behind it were beginning to throw things in there for fun.

And now I come full circle, idly watching Santa trek across the globe. He's just on his way to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. It looks like he's bound for Kowloon after that, so I reckon it'll be a while before he gets to my pokey little chimney here in the UK. But if you're wondering when Google's little helper will swing by your region, the Santa Tracker is free for anyone to check out right here.

Rhys Wood
Hardware Editor

Rhys is TRG's Hardware Editor, and has been part of the TechRadar team for more than two years. Particularly passionate about high-quality third-party controllers and headsets, as well as the latest and greatest in fight sticks and VR, Rhys strives to provide easy-to-read, informative coverage on gaming hardware of all kinds. As for the games themselves, Rhys is especially keen on fighting and racing games, as well as soulslikes and RPGs.