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How You Can Save Christmas: Operation Santa Claus

Updated on December 19, 2008
Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree
Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

Tis The Season

(NOTE: The N.Y. Times reported on Thursday, December 18th, that Operation Santa Clause is being temporarily suspended because they became aware that a convicted child molester was participating. They immediately closed it down in N.Y. city and across the nation. Steps are being taken to illimnate this problem and N.Y. is expected to resume in a few days. It is not known how long it will take other post offices to resume this worthwhile program, or even if they will. Follow the N.Y. Times link above to read the story. I was alerted to this fact by fellow hubber jaimelinus0316.)

Back to our regularly scheduled program...

I stepped out from the revolving door of my office into the brisk afternoon and there it was as always during the holiday season, the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, towering over the ice skaters, little living snowflakes in the sunken rink. People milled around the plaza in packs, staring at the 8o foot Norway Spruce with it's 5 miles of lights, so large that you couldn't find one in the woods growing that tall, but only planted in a person's front yard and nurtured for 70 years. So they search by helicopter and cut down somebody's ornamental spruce in Connecticut or Vermont or Ohio or New Jersey or even Ottawa, shipping it whole to midtown Manhattan so the tourists can stand there and look up into the sky with their mouths open like turkeys in the rain, their gaze moving first up the tree, then to the buildings, then back to the tree, then buildings, then up there somewhere at whatever it was tourists looked at up there.

To the locals, this yearly raid of tourists was a tremendous curse. We were trying to get to work in our normal, furtive New York pace, and tourists are everywhere, lolly-gagging around and looking to the sky. But it is impossible not to get into the Christmas spirit in Manhattan, for me at least, and so there I stood stupidly grinning like the Tennessee rube I actually was, staring at the tree, then the buildings, then tree, then buildings, and then up there at whatever it was they were staring at up there. This year would be special. I was going to be Santa, and I was on my way to get my list.

Macy's Christmas Windows
Macy's Christmas Windows

Extra, Extra, Read All About It


I read about it in the morning paper. Operation Santa Claus started informally in the early 1920s by a small group of postal clerks. They began to answer the Dear Santa letters, pooling their money to purchase the gifts. The letters sat doomed in the dead-letter office, rescued only by the last-second grab of a clerk, like a child's hopes saved from crashing on the rocks below by a stranger with a quick hand. The number of letters grew and the public was asked to help.

The letters come from all over the world, largely due to the popularity of the classic film "Miracle on 34th. Street," which depicts the New York Post Office delivering thousands of kids' Christmas s letters to the courthouse. Just like in the movie, most of the letters are simply addressed "Santa Claus," or "Santa Clause, North Pole," or "Santa Claus, New York."

I dodged my way through the people. Most were in the middle of their New York Christmas window walk, ooo’s and ahh’s saved up in Union and Springfield and Peoria and freely dispensed in the big city. The people begin at Macy's and slowly make their way uptown, careful to hit the big boys: Bloomingdales, Lord and Taylor, Bergdorf Goodman, and Barney's, with the Rockefeller Plaza tree figuring in there somewhere, usually right after the windows of Saks Fifth Avenue.



U.S. General Post Office
U.S. General Post Office

Neither Snow Nor Rain


I  zigzagged along a street and then down an avenue, street, avenue, and so on, making my way west and downtown until I hit 8th ave., then straight down to 33rd street. The random snow flakes from a flurry melted on my face and disappeared on the pavement, leaving only a glassy sheen.  And there it stood, the U.S. General Post office. The mother of all US post offices. Zip code 10001.

 With it’s broad shoulders and massive eight-acre footprint over 2 full city blocks,  the building was both imposing and protective. Above the longest Corinthian Colonnade in the world were carved the famous words;  Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. Not the post office motto as it turns out, but romantic never the less.


U.S. General Post Office entrance
U.S. General Post Office entrance

Letters To Santa

I made my way up the unbroken flight of steps stretching the full length of the colonnade and entered the whirling-dervish revolving door, a tiny porthole between two of the massive columns, emerging into the warmth of the classical hall. Several people stood around a central table reading letters. More sat in chairs with a small stack of papers in their laps and still more people sat along the walls, their knapsacks, backpacks, purses, dance bags, and briefcases next to them on the floor.

Picking up some of the letters, I began to read...and read...and read. When the first tear overflowed and streamed down my cheek, I unobtrusively looked to see if anyone had noticed. Not only had they not, but many had wet faces themselves and others choked back bittersweet teardrops. But it was beautiful too, and occasionally someone would read a sentence aloud to the group, “This little girl asked for some tennis shoes and a tiara,” and “Here’s a kid wants a couple a pairs of jeans and shirts cause everything he’s got has holes, and maybe something nice for his ma,” and we would chuckle or sigh, all members of an orchestra, synchronized, playing the symphony of life, the pretty part. In the middle of Manhattan. Bedford Falls on steroids.

Reading the letters was like looking deep into a secret place. Straight down into a child’s heart, their wishes and dreams revealed, and it was in your power to make them come true, even if only for one day. The fact that we were strangers deepened the connection with the mystery kids, and where at first you looked at the words with a calculated detachment, you soon were sucked down into the letters and into a foreign world where there was no Christmas turkey and the heat had been cut off days ago. You could literally save Christmas for a family. That’s a heady feeling. Eventually I chose two letters - a boy and a girl - and tore myself away, emotionally exhausted and teary.

Santa Goes Shopping

A shopper I am not. But on this occasion I shopped with a passion foreign to me. I was fortunate that midtown had 4 or 5 “odd lot” type stores very near each other, and I went to them all, carrying my lists and carefully choosing my gifts. The boy had asked for school items - notebooks, pencils, pens and whatever else Santa thought might be needed for the well equipped schoolboy, and a small teddy bear for his little brother. I put together a book shoulder bag that would make an adult drool, and his kid brother got a teddy bear that wasn’t so small. The little girl needed a winter coat because “it was cold,” and I took no end of pleasure in choosing her coat, jacket, sweaters, sweat shirts, some jeans, and a nice pair of sneakers. And they both got more stuff that wasn’t on their lists but just looked fun. I had only spent about $100.00.

At home, I took pictures of each gift before I packed the boxes, remembering the girl’s last second request, added at the end of her letter as an afterthought, “Oh, yes, and a pony!” As it happened, I had won a rather spectacular stuffed pony at Coney Island just a couple of months before so into the box it went. Later, I would make copies of the pictures and letters and give a set to each member of my family on Christmas morning back in the midwest, informing them that “they” had adopted two needy kids for the holidays.

The Meaning Of Christmas

Was this charity? It didn’t seem right somehow, that I should get so much joy and fulfillment from this simple act. Wasn’t charity and “do-gooding” supposed to be more...inconvenient? More of a sacrifice on my part? The benevolence and benefits couldn’t be denied, but still, I think I must have liked sending the gifts as much as the kids liked getting them. I felt good. I felt righteous. I may have saved their Christmas’, but in a very real way they had saved mine.

My family loved the letters and pictures. They read parts aloud and laughed with watery eyes and looked at the pictures and they glowed, feeling, I knew, the same as me, the same as everyone in the post office that first day. It was then I truly realized the far-reaching impact of this simple act, touching the children, their parents, myself, and now my family members. Over the next few years I took 6 letters every time (the maximum for an individual) and every year my family asked for the letters first on Christmas morning before any other gifts had been opened. It didn’t matter that the money I spent on gifts for my family became less and less as more and more went to the kids. They didn’t notice or didn’t care, because I was now giving them the best gift they had ever gotten, and their excitement, their anticipation never lessened.

Yes, Virgina, There Is a Santa Claus

That was 20 years ago, when the post office received about 5000 Dear Santa letters. This year the total is expected to reach 200,000. With the state of the economy, the number of persons “adopting” these kids for Christmas is expected to decline. When I moved back to the midwest, I thought I could not participate any longer and not a Christmas has gone by that I haven’t thought about those kids, vowing that next year I was going to do something about it. And I am. Starting tomorrow. 

Beginning in 2006, Operation Santa Claus began expanding to other cities throughout the U.S. I’m going to call my post office and ask if they have the Santa program, and if they don’t I’m going to ask what I can do to help get it started. And then I’m going to contact organizations like Rotary Clubs, Knights of Columbus, corporations and schools and ask them to participate. An organization can take up to 100 letters.

And then I’m going to ask you, dear reader, to do the same where you live. For the kids, yes, of course - after all there are still kids who have little or no hope for Christmas, who have holes in their clothes, who need school supplies and winter jackets, whose heat has been shut off, and some sweet little girl who wants a pony - but for yourselves, for your karma, for your soul. You wont regret it. You’ll not only save a child’s Christmas, but you just might save your own. Merry Christmas!

Operation Santa Claus Guidelines

Please contact your local postmaster to see if Operation Santa Claus is available in your area at this time.

All "Dear Santa" letters are to be picked up at a post office in person. There is a limit of 6 letters per person - no appointment necessary, and 100 for companies and organizations by appointment only.

All “Dear Santa” helpers must agree with the USPS Privacy Act Statement listed on the PS Form 6012-1 (Operation Santa Letter Adoption Individual) and PS Form 6012 (Operation Santa Letter Adoption Third Party).

All “Dear Santa” helpers are required to show one piece of acceptable identification. Please visit the Operation Santa Claus website at:

For another fine article, please read Charitable Giving; When Is It Wrong? by Sally’s Trove, who suggested I write this story.


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