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Santa's little postal helpers: Volunteers respond to kids' letters
Written on paper generously decorated with glitter and hand-drawn artwork, Jayda asked Santa for a purple dress, new markers, overalls and a movie. Jasmine would like a castle, unicorn, colorful horses, a prince and a rainbow.
These and other requests to Santa are arriving in letters at post offices nationwide. In Federal Way, diligent postal workers pluck them from piles of other mail and forwarding the letters to a Lower Queen Anne post office in Seattle. There, they will be picked up and answered as part of a program known as Operation Santa.
Operation Santa started with the U.S. Postal Service in 1912, and had caught on by the 1940s. The program permits postal employees, charitable organizations, businesses and the public to respond to children’s letters to Santa.
Federal Way’s two post offices have seen about a dozen letters so far, but heavier quantities are expected in the next two weeks as Christmas nears, said Robert Thomas, supervisor for the post offices. Some of the letters gathered in Federal Way and other regional offices will be read by volunteers with the Church of Scientology of Washington State, based in Seattle.
The church has participated in Operation Santa for 16 years, spokeswoman and minister Ann Pearce said. The church sees 300 to 500 letters annually, she said. Responding to the notes makes volunteers feel good, and kids’ spirits are lifted when they get a letter from Santa, she said.
No two letters are alike. The children tell Santa if their dad just lost his job, or if their mother is ill, Pearce said. They ask about Santa’s elves and reindeer. Sometimes they include hand-drawn pictures. And, of course, they assure Santa they’ve been good this year and tell him what they hope to see under the tree.
“Sometimes kids will send the whole Toys ‘R’ Us catalog,” Pearce said.
The U.S. postal service provides guidelines for responding to the letters. If children share personal stories or ask about specific things, volunteers comment on the stories or answer the questions, Pearce said.
But no promises are made, she said. A typical letter follows a generic pattern, but is still individualized. It thanks the child for writing, comments on whatever the child included in the letter, and reassures that Santa knows what the child wants for Christmas, Pearce said.
This is the first year Federal Way is sending letters to Seattle. In past years, the letters were shipped to Auburn, where city letter carrier Scott Jensen personally responded to them. Jensen has played Santa for 20 years, he said. A former postal worker used to respond to the letters, but when that person retired, there was a need for someone else to step up.
“Nobody else was picking the ball up, and so I kind of picked the ball up and have been rolling it ever since,” Jensen said.
Some Federal Way letters have found their way to Jensen. He’s also seen letters from Auburn, Kent, Enumclaw and Mountlake Terrace. He too spent Sunday responding to the letters.
Jensen said he typically responds to 70 Dear Santa letters. He begins responding after Thanksgiving. The notes are written with a personal touch on Christmas stationery. Jensen has seen roughly 40 letters so far this year, he said.
“If they make it to me and they have a return address on them, the kid will get a response,” Jensen said.
Jensen is a big fan of Christmas. His mail truck has a wreath and bow on front. On the last delivery day before Christmas, Jensen delivers the mail dressed as Santa.
“I guess you can say I’m a little bit festive,” he said.
Responding to children’s letters is a lengthy process that requires security measures. In 2006, the United States Postal Service adopted regulations for handling children’s letters to Santa. Regulations were updated in 2008 and again last year. The policy emerged after a sexual predator on the East Coast requested children’s letters a few years ago, said Ernie Swanson, U.S. Postal Service Seattle District spokesman.
Before postal employees release Santa letters, some background work is done. Requesters must fill out an application and provide valid identification.
If their application is approved, they get photocopies of the children’s original letters. The children’s personal data is redacted. The original letter and photocopy are each given a corresponding numerical code. When return mail is dropped off and postage is paid by volunteers responding to the letters, postal employees match up the numbers, then fill in the child’s last name and address before sending the child mail from Santa.
“It’s a very labor intensive, time consuming program,” Swanson said.
Because of this, not all post offices participate in Operation Santa.