I read the article in the New York Times with great dismay.
“Postal Service Tells Gift-Givers Not to Help Santa” said the headline. Reading on, I learned that “The United States Postal Service abruptly shut down public participation in all the Operation Santa programs — in New York and other major cities across the country — at 1 p.m. Wednesday, without offering post offices or letter-seeking citizens any understanding of why.”
The Times reporter discovered that the Postal Service officials in Washington decided to shut Santa down when, “at one of the programs, not New York’s, a man whom a letter carrier recognized as a registered sex offender had “adopted” a letter. When postal officials confronted the man, the official said, he said he was sincerely trying to do a good deed, but postal inspectors nonetheless retrieved the letter and notified the family of the child. The Postal Service, indicating that the closing down of all of Operation Santa might be temporary, said that it felt it was wise to take the precaution.”
Of course, the safety of children is of paramount importance, but it is a pity that the officials thought that shuttering the entire program was the best way to deal with an isolated incident (note, the man in question had not, in any way, contacted the child who wrote the letter). The losers here are the children who wrote to Santa Claus, expressing their deepest longings, and the thousands of New Yorkers who looked forward to anonymously making the kids’ dreams come true.
Reading the story reminded me that I had, once upon a time, drafted an article about Operation Santa Claus but neglected to post it. Now, here it is — a look back at Operation Santa Claus as it was back in 2005.
Children have long written letters to Santa Claus, but once those Christmas wish letters are dropped into the mailboxes, where do they go? Often, they end up at the main post office in New York City as part of Operation Santa Claus.
Operation Santa Claus began in the New York Post Office nearly 100 years ago, when clerks in what was known as the Money Order Division decided to answer the children whose letters to Santa would otherwise go unanswered. A few decades later, the workers invited the public to help respond to the flood of mail — much of it inspired by the “letters to Santa” scene in the 1947 hit movie, Miracle on 34th Street.
Through the years, the program expanded to post offices across the country, but New York’s has remained the largest, drawing thousands of people daily. They go to the majestic James A. Farley Station and cram into a room decorated with kitschy Christmas ornaments. There, to the tinny sounds of “Jingle Bells” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” they dig through bins labeled with the names of the city’s five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx and Staten Island, and two others bearing tags that say “New Jersey” and “Everywhere Else.”
Tables and chairs are set up for participants, but there aren’t enough to hold the crowd that surges in daily, perching on every available space and sprawling onto the floor, looking for the letter — or letters — that touch their hearts. The post office staff doesn’t read or screen the letters; they are simply opened and placed into the bins. Every person in the room has a strategy for selecting the “right” letters.
“You read through them,” explained one woman, “and it is easy to sort the greedy from the needy.” She’s right. Look through a few letters and you’ll quickly begin to see the patterns emerge.
Missives from working and middle class children tend to be charming, sweet, funny and brand conscious. They ask for electronics, name brand sneakers, the toys advertised on television and sports equipment. Some even helpfully include ads from stores with circles drawn around the pictures of the items they crave.
The letters from the poor children are a stark contrast. “Dear Santa,” many of them begin, “I don’t want anything for myself …”
The writers describe sick, shivering grandmothers who need sweaters to keep warm, younger siblings who lack paper and pens to do their schoolwork, mothers who cry when they think their children are asleep. They don’t dare request toys; the poor kids ask for things that more affluent children would be appalled to receive as Christmas presents: underwear, socks, soap, shampoo, blankets, hats and gloves.
Letters arrive from parents, too, who can’t afford to provide many comforts for their children. The return addresses may be refuges for abused women or homeless shelters. The writers may be disabled, recently released from incarceration, or just out of a drug rehabilitation program. They may be struggling to hold onto or to regain custody of their children, or simply looking for something they can bring on the days they are allowed to see their kids.
“Dear Santa,” wrote one such mother, “please bring shoelaces for my kids and toothbrushes so each boy has his own.”
In order to arrive before Christmas morning, all Operation Santa letter and packages must be mailed no later than December 22. If you’d like to participate this year, go to the James A. Farley Station at Eighth Avenue and 33rd Street. The Operation Santa room is open Monday through Saturday from December 2 to December 23.