Postal Service marks century of Letters to Santa program

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Many of the children's letters to Santa Claus ask for simple necessities: a new pair of brown shoes, a winter coat, a car seat, maybe some clothes or a toy unless another child needs them more.

Often, the children politely ask Santa to help someone else: a brother or sister or cousin or mother.

"Dear Santa, I don't need anything for Christmas but my brother Mike needs a new pair of shoes real bad, size four please. Love, Amy," reads one letter posted on the site www.beanelf.org, a nonprofit group that guides would-be Secret Santas to post offices where such requests can be "adopted" as part of the U.S. Postal Service's Letters to Santa program.

Many children ask for the usual under-the-Christmas-tree gifts, too -- a ride-on Jeep, Barbie dolls, a CD player -- but for some children and parents who write letters to Santa Claus, filling basic needs comes first, said Patrick Reynolds, the nonprofit group's head "elf" and executive director.

Reading such letters can be heart-wrenching, he said, but buying and sending the requested gifts can be a wonderful act of generosity that helps the giver as well as the receiver.

"People who have children and families can teach their children the meaning of Christmas," Mr. Reynolds said. "It fills a lot of people with true Christmas spirit."

Now in its 100th year, the Letters to Santa program is available in about 20 post offices nationwide, down from 75 participating post offices in 2011, according to the postal service. Postal officials have attributed the decline to a wave of recent retirements in the postal service, which also continues to struggle under a budget deficit that reached nearly $16 billion in fiscal year 2012.

Pittsburgh does not participate in the Letters to Santa program, which receives thousands of letters from children each year.

At the locations that do participate, postal workers open local children's letters to Santa, assign each an identification number, remove any other identifying information such as last name and address, and sort the letters into piles according to whether the requested items include serious needs. The letters are then placed in a public "adoption" area inside the post office.

Adopters read through the letters in person, choose one or as many as 10, purchase the requested items, wrap the gifts, box them for mailing and return them to the post office, where they also purchase postage. Postal workers then match the identifying number with the child's name and address, affix a mailing label and deliver the gifts to the child's home. The return address on the box will read, "Operation Santa, North Pole," according to the postal service.

Most post offices' programs began last week and will continue until a few days before Christmas.

In Pittsburgh, postal workers reply each Christmas season to a few hundred children's letters to Santa, sending back letters wishing the children happy holidays and reminding them to be good girls and boys.

If local residents would like to ask for Pittsburgh to participate in the Letters to Santa program, district spokesman Tad Kelley said, they should make their request in writing to the manager of consumer affairs at the U.S. Post Office, 1001 California Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15290.

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For more information about Operation Santa and its participating locations, go to www.usps.gov or www.beanelf.com. Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: 412-263-1719 or aschaarsmith@post-gazette.com.


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