Each year about this time, Orange County post offices are flooded with letters, addressed ambiguously in loopy, young handwriting to Santa Claus, c/o North Pole. Some are simple wish lists:
For Christmas I want a mother pound puppy and a real baby with the eyes open.
Others seek Santa as a potential pen pal:
I was wondering if you could write a letter to me. When you weren't born who was Santa Claus? Well anyway you can tell me also how do you give presents to the whole city and your sley never gets heavy?
Yours truely, Jolie L.
Or they express curiosity:
Dear Santa Claws,
Is it true that your raindeers can fly? Are there elves for your helpers? Can you make time stop? Is it possible for me to come where you live? Please write back to me soon because I have always wondered about you.
Love, Karen R.
And rarely, as in the case of this writer who seems to think that Santa has a better business department, letters are downright demanding:
Dear Santa, I got an electric car from you and it doesn't work that well! So if you give me another electric car this year you'd better double check it! Sorry to tell you this.
Your friend, Christopher."
Although some of Orange County's 66 post offices choose to respond individually to letters to Santa, most forward them to the central sorting facility in Santa Ana. There they are stuffed into oversize envelopes and sent to the local Salvation Army office.
All good little girls and boys who write legibly and include a return address receive a reply from one of Santa Claus' industrious "elves."
This year, Santa's elf is computer operator Irene Olson--called Santa by her co-workers--who answers as many letters as possible. She reports receiving between 350 and 400 letters a week since Thanksgiving. "We open and read each one individually," Olson said. "Generally what we do is check the last name in the phone book and try to call the parents and explain that we're Santa's helpers and we've received their child's letter. Then they tell us the address, and we mail a response."
Olson, who spends four to seven hours each day answering the letters, with some assistance from part-time envelope stuffers, responds with what she calls a "noncommittal" form letter:
Dear Little Friend,
Thank you so much for your letter! Everyone here at the North Pole is hard at work. . . . The elves are busy making dolls, skateboards, games and many other toys. . . . Even the reindeer are getting excited. They can't wait for Christmas because that's when they get to fly and eat all those goodies you set out for them."
Local "elves" agree that certain items are in demand this season: Pound puppies (stuffed dogs needing new homes), corn silk dolls (Cabbage Patch dolls with brushable hair), bikes and skateboards.
Those letters that warrant their wishes being granted are always from needy children, said Olson, and are easily detected by the modesty of wishes--usually for food, clothes or only one or two toys. "I'd like my family to be healthy, and a pogo stick," said one.
And when the request calls for a little extra charm, the Salvation Army can make that happen, too, by matching donors and needy children.
"I remember one last year, where a bike was donated, and we got it to a little boy in Santa Ana," said Salvation Army bookkeeper Edith Henry. "He said he really wanted it so he could have a paper route and help out the family."
"This is a caring program, and we just want the children to feel good," said Salvation Army office manager Mannick Murkin.
For children who send letters to Santa in Laguna Niguel, El Toro and Mission Viejo in south Orange County, Santa's elves come in the form of Jason Stein, 19, and Laurie Diederich, 22, employees at the Saddleback Valley Unified School District's recreation department.
"A lot of (letters) are written by 2-year-olds, with words you've never seen before, scrawled all over the place," said Stein, a special-events organizer for the recreation department.
Stein and Diederich answer the letters with one of three appropriate form letters that tell the children that "Rudolph has been polishing his nose so the sky will light up on Christmas Eve. He and the other reindeer love to wear their jingle bells so all the boys and girls can hear us coming. I hope to see you when I jump down the chimney. . . . We have many orders to fill, and Christmas is not far away. But Santa loves to work hard for good children like you."
(Area residents are invited to have their children deposit letters in a special mailbox in front of the Saddleback Valley Unified School District building, 25631 Diseno Drive, Mission Viejo, or send them directly to the Laguna Niguel post office, which delivers them to the recreation department. Stein and Diederich will also be fielding phone calls to Santa at their offices next week at (714) 586-1234.)
Postal workers in Anaheim usually pass letters on to community groups willing to supply Santa replies. In Garden Grove, post office employee Cindy Mathews answers each of the letters that come to her office with a form letter.
In writing to Santa, children usually promise that they have been good. But believing that Santa sees all, another child confesses the truth:
Dear Santa, Nice to talk to you again. You have probly been watching me. Well, I have too. I haven't been very good this year.
From the Santa Ana Salvation Army's Santa comes this answer:
I need you to be good, helpful and loving all year long to those around you, so every day may be like Christmas. . . . Love, Santa.