Hopeful souls who put pen to paper in hopes that a jolly old elf will bring them toys - or sometimes food, clothing, a job or place to live - may find themselves out in the cold this year, since the United States Postal Service has been forced to end its Dear Santa letter program in the greater Los Angeles area.
The popular program involved volunteers who would adopt letter-writers, answering their letters and sending gifts or other items requested by the writers.
Letters weren't always requests for stacks of items found in toy or department stores. In 2008, the Santa Clarita distribution center shared some of the letters received.
Many of the letters are from children who ask for necessities like food, clothes and school supplies, but some are written from parents looking for a Christmas miracle to help their family.
One letter from a little girl read "I'm thankful that we still have a house and a warm bed to sleep in at night, but going to bed on an empty stomach hurts. It hurts because I hear my two little sisters cry and can't sleep because they are hungry."
Postal Service spokesman Richard Maher said that privacy issues were among the reasons the program has come to a conclusion. He added that the Dear Santa program in Southern California processes an average of 30,000 letters every year.
"We will still get letters and many of them will be answered by Postal Service employees," he said, adding that postal workers often adopt several of the letter-writers and provide gifts and food for the holiday.
Unfortunately this year the Postal Service will not be able to make the Dear Santa letters available to the public," Maher said. "There is a new very labor intensive process involved and we just don't have the resources to administer this program properly with the number of letters that we receive. We really need to focus on our core mission, which is to deliver the holidays to our customers, those cards, letters and gift packages, to every home, every day. It's been a wonderful program, and it's still going on in different parts of the country."
Maher explained that the new procedure is complicated and involves having an employee open and scan each letter, redact (conceal) any personal information, make copies and log in each letter, assigning it a number. The letters are then put in a file, where they can be reviewed by customers and if the customer chooses to answer a letter, they have to fill out an application and the postal workers then have to match their number with the number on the letter.
Customers would then bring the purchased gifts back to the post office and pay for the mailing, which would be done by generating a label from the original letter.
"The customer never sees any of the personal information," he explained. "When you consider the number of letters we get it's a huge, huge undertaking to administer the program, especially in these tough economic times."
"Our goal is to protect the privacy of all of our customers," he continued. "There are so many reputable charities helping people in need that hopefully everyone will still have their holiday wishes come true and people will turn to the other organizations that are helping people that need assistance this time of year."
Among the post offices that have opted out of the Dear Santa letter program this year is the town of North Pole, Alaska. Adding insult to injury, however, is the Postal Service's decision to move a popular "re-sending" program to Anchorage, where they have larger facilities that can handle the more than 800,000 letters received.
"Parents and guardians can write a personalized letter to their child from Santa and send it in a larger envelope to the North Pole, where it gets a special postmark," Maher explained. "The letter, which has been signed from 'Santa' by the parent, is then mailed back to their child in a self-addressed, stamped envelope."
The mayor of North Pole isn't too happy about the move, but Maher said it was another step taken to make best use of the Postal Service facilities. The address for parents to send letters, which must be received by Dec. 15, is new: North Pole Holiday Postmark, c/o Postmaster, 4141 Postmark Drive, Anchorage, Alaska, 99530-9998.