Every year, post offices around the country are inundated with letters to Santa Claus asking for toys, candy, puppies and more. For 103 years the post office and its volunteers have been answering these letters as part of the Letters to Santa program.
Before the Letters to Santa program existed, it was technically illegal to open letters addressed to Santa. People cannot legally open mail addressed to another person, even if the person is fictional. But this didn’t stop vigilante postal workers. It’s rumored that the first instances of guerilla philanthropy started in the Dead Letter Office, a place for letters without viable destinations. Other apocryphal tales consist of a wealthy bachelor answering yuletide pleas.
In 1911, Postmaster General Frank H. Hitchcock granted permission to post masters to distribute letters to Santa. Many years later in 1979, the postal service expanded the program to answer letters addressed to the Easter Bunny and Mother Nature.
The program was popularized by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Carson spent nearly two decades reading letters from the program including this gem:
“Dear Santa and Dear elves,
Thank you for bringing us the presents. When you mess up our floors please try to clean up. Our Christmas tree is in the basement rec room this year. Don’t worry if you make noise. Dad said he won’t go down and shoot you.”
The program lives on today in post offices around the country. This year at the annual tree lighting ceremony at Pier 39 in San Francisco, hoards of kids drafted their own letters to Santa during a USPS workshop. Wishes ranged from the cosmic “I want a telescope to see space,” to the more terrestrial “I want a binder, paper, and money”. Some kids scribbled their own letters while a few younger kids didn’t write at all and just slammed stamps on the page.
“Children are very inventive. Its unbelievable,” says Augustine Ruiz, spokesperson for the Postal Service. Ruiz has been with the post office since 1984.
“So every year around July and August we start seeing these letters addressed to Santa Claus starting to trickle in,” says Ruiz “North Pole, no address other than that... We probably get in the entire Bay Area close to 6,000 letters during the season.”
Not all the letters are from children. Some of the letters are from parents asking for holiday help.
“We get a lot of letters from single mothers that are just trying to get the bare necessities for their children,” says Ruiz.
The letters get answered with the help of postal workers and volunteers. Ruiz estimates that there are hundreds of volunteers, including individuals and companies.
Individual participants visit the Hunters Point Post Office during the allotted hours and sift through huge stacks of letters looking for the ones they want to adopt. Some people come every year, some volunteers are newcomers.
One such visitor was Karen Scheerer, “I was going to go hiking but then my back hurt and I was just scrolling on Facebook and I thought ‘oh, this is so cute, I'm gonna be Santa!’ And I love shopping so it's perfect.”
The kid’s first name and age are the only personal information left on the letters. All sensitive information is redacted, so that their identity and address can be kept private. The public letters are photocopies with numbers written on the corners. This allows postal workers to match them to addresses.
Many of the gifts you can buy online or in a store. Others are impossible to shop for, but you still have to answer them as Santa in an age appropriate manner. These letters include “Did Santa invent Christmas?” “Can you grant world Peace?” and “Dear Santa, I want world peace. I bet you can do that. I wish every Isis guy will be killed.”
It’s hard to know what is perfectly appropriate for each child. There is also the added pressure of playing a mythic figure in a child’s imagination, one with moral dominion over children with his naughty and nice lists. When responding, it’s important to keep this in mind.
It’s worth it, however. There’s only so many times in life that you get to play secret Santa with a total stranger.