Lori Fletcher, a New York freelance writer who produces copy for direct-mail advertisers, isn’t sending Christmas cards or buying business gifts for her clients this year. Instead, like last year, she will send them notes saying that she has purchased gifts for poor kids who sent letters to Santa Claus.
Like thousands of other New Yorkers, Fletcher drops into the Operation Santa Claus office at the New York General Post Office every December to look through Christmas letters that kids have sent to Santa Claus. People choose one or more letters -- usually from poor inner-city kids -- and then send them one or more gifts.
Fletcher took home thirty letters last year, and spent a little over $30 on presents for each child -- about $1,000. Leaving the Operation Santa Claus office last year, she wished she could have chosen more. “I feel so terrible,” she said. “All these kids who aren’t going to get anything for Christmas. It’s so tragic.”
She grabbed a letter. “This one is from a seven-year-old boy with three sisters between the ages of ten and four,” Fletcher said, “He asked Santa for one present they could all share.”
Operation Santa Claus began informally in the early 1920s, when New York postal clerks began chipping in their own money to buy gifts for poor kids whose notes to Santa ended up in the dead-letter office. As the number of letters grew, the clerks asked for help from the public. The program’s most dramatic growth has come in the last two decades. In 1980, there were about 5,000 letters to Santa from needy kids received at the New York Post Office. This year the total will almost certainly be more than 150,000, and could approach 200,000.
Most of the letters are from the New York area. But many come from other parts of the country and from other nations, thanks to the classic movie “Miracle on 34th Street.” The film, a seasonal rerun on TV networks around the world at this time of year, shows the New York Post Office delivering thousands of kids’ Christmas letters to a department-store Santa who claims to be the real Kris Kringle. In the movie and in real life, most of the letters handled by Operation Santa Claus are addressed simply “Santa Claus,” or “Santa Claus, North Pole,” or “Santa Claus, New York.” However, some savvy teachers in poor New York schools have all their students write to “Operation Santa Claus, General Post Office, New York NY 10000,” as class assignments in hopes that a few of them will get gifts they would not otherwise receive.
It doesn’t matter to the Post Office where the letters come from, or why. Postal workers volunteering before or after their own shifts put out the letters, and keep track of which children will be getting gifts so that there are no repeats. The postal volunteers also take the time to send letters to people in other parts of the country, from Florida to California, many of them former New Yorkers, who want to participate in Operation Santa Claus but can’t get in to the Post Office to choose letters. (Incidentally, postal workers in a number of other cities have established their own local versions of Operation Santa Claus, modeled on New York. If your town hasn’t, ask the local postmaster why not.)
“Most of the letters are from very needy children,” said Andy Sozzi, a Post Office spokesman. But not all. I found several from wealthy suburbs, including one that was typed and printed on what appeared to be a better computer system than the one I used to write this story. This kid had a list of 28 gifts, including all sorts of electronic games, that I guessed would add up to more than $4,000. “See you in the mall!” his letter concluded.
Sozzi cautioned against assuming that a child wasn’t deserving just because he or she asked for something beyond the bare necessities. “Even if a girl wants a Barbie doll and a boy wants a computer game, they may still need a coat and shoes,” he said. “These are kids, and even poor kids want stuff like that.” Sozzi said many of the letters are cute. Many are heartbreaking. “There was one a couple of years ago,” Sozzi said. “It was from a seven-year-old boy. He and his infant sister and his mom were homeless. But he said he didn’t need anything, he could take care of himself. He just wondered if Santa could send some Pampers and maybe a blanket for his baby sister.”
Sitting down and reading letters is a riveting experience, like peering through a window into these children’s lives. One kid included a picture of a Rolex watch he had cut out of a magazine advertisement, and advised, “I have been good almost every day.” Another asked for a computer, and helpfully provided the brand name and specifications for speed, memory, etc. Another asked for a Boston Whaler fishing boat, and said he was writing early so that Santa could stock up on fiberglass in his workshop.
Many kids included suggested retail prices. Some, no doubt true New Yorkers who believe Thou Shalt Not Pay Retail is the eleventh commandment, gave Santa tips on where their gifts could be purchased on sale.
“P.S. I love your elves,” one little girl scrawled.
“I love you and I will always believe in you,” one charming little fellow wrote. Then he asked for two toy guns.
“I live in Coney Island,” one girl wrote. “Do you ever come there?”
One boy wrote a mini-biography, and then, “I’d like something for Christmas.” Anything was fine, he said, because he “didn’t get nothing” last year.
One girl asked for “pencils for school,” and said it was important because she wanted to be a secretary when she grows up.
One child asked for a new bed, another for snow boots. Many children requested gifts for their brothers and sisters. One girl wanted something for an aunt whose house had burned down. Brian asked for something for his two-year-old sister. Edith said her mom couldn’t pay the electric bill, and asked for winter clothes.
Some letters are from parents who know about Operation Santa Claus, and hope that someone will pluck out their letters. Michelle wrote that she was “blessed” to have her son, but could not afford to buy him anything this year. Carmen, who lost her job because she couldn’t find anyone to babysit, asked for clothing, “even used” clothing, for her three daughters “so the other kids could stop making fun of the way they dress.”
As I sat in the Operation Santa Claus temporary office and read letters, dozens of other people came in and out of the side room at the main Post Office, 33rd and Eighth Avenue, behind Madison Square Garden. Some people seemed to be settled in for the day, reading letter after letter as if they were savoring a delicious novel. Others blew in, read fast, grabbed a letter and blew out. When the chairs were all occupied, people sat on the floor to read. One young couple in expensive suits took a businesslike approach, making stacks of letters and scribbling notes on possible candidates.
Many people gathered around the central table spontaneously read portions of the letters aloud, and others commented. More than one blinked back a tear or two as they read. The mix of people was as varied as on any New York subway car at rush hour, except there was eye contact. Lots of it. These people, recognizing each other as good souls, commiserated and conversed in the familiar tones of old friends rather than big-city strangers. The very best of New York sparkles to life every December in that little room.
One man, James Garcia, had a stack of letters. He would send gifts to some of the kids himself. Some letters he would fax to his mother and sisters, and they could send gifts to those kids. “Not that I have lots to give, but I have more than these kids’ parents do,” Garcia said. The previous year, he had called a mother to make sure it was all right to buy her son the wrestling action figures he wanted, and she “started crying and blessin’ me” over the phone, he said. One woman found a letter from a teacher who had a special-education class of 24 kids in one of the poorest sections of the city. “I’m going to go give them all a little Christmas party,” she announced. One woman poring over letters yelped when she noticed how the time had slipped away. Her lunch hour had turned into two hours. “I gotta get outta here,” she said, clutching several letters. “Or my boss is gonna fire me and I’m gonna be writing a letter to Santa for my own kids next year.”
I had no intention of doing so when I arrived at the Post Office that day, but within five minutes I had decided to take home a letter. I looked at several dozen, tossed out all but ten, and then went through them again to choose one. I couldn’t. I ended up taking home four letters mentioned above -- two written by mothers, Carmen and Michelle, and two written by kids, Brian and Edith. All four of them asked for winter clothing or something for their brothers and sisters.
At home, my own family reacted to my plunge into Operation Santa Claus with enthusiasm. My wife and kids read and re-read the letters, and started making lists for each of the eight children in the four families. We decided every child would get two gifts: something to wear, and a toy. The next day, we hit the mall and spent a couple of happy hours shopping. (I never thought I would write anything with those last three words in the same sentence.) My kids really got into it.
“Here, dad, she’ll like this.”
“No, that’s too babyish for him.”
“Mom, I’d like this, and he’s the same age as me, so I bet he’d like it, too.”
“The note says his little sister loves ‘101 Dalmatians,’ so let’s get this for her. It’s not too expensive, is it?”
“Let’s get the each of the three sisters these sweatsuits, but in different colors.”
I am not, by nature or nurture, a shopper. But I must say I enjoyed this. We topped off the trip by buying some new wrapping paper and ribbons. As soon as we got home, everybody helped with the wrapping, and I bundled everything off to the Post Office the next day. My guess is that the entire cost was around $300, but I don’t know. We never added it up.
For each of the four sets of kids, I sent the mothers a note letting them know how many packages were coming so that they could tell us if something didn’t arrive. I got four short notes back within two weeks of Christmas, thanking us and assuring us that all the gifts had indeed arrived. “They certainly made our Christmas merrier,” one of the mothers wrote. “On behalf of my husband and kids we hope you have a new year filled with happiness, peace and health together with your family. God bless you.”
From Sky magazine, December 1997 and November 1998.
Tim Harper, based at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org is going back to Operation Santa Claus this year, and has enlisted several of his neighbors to go, too.
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