Playing Santa to total strangers

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Where do all those letters that kids write to Santa go?  For over 100 years, the US Postal Service has made it possible for people to “adopt” letters from the neediest kids, based on their zip codes–and fulfill their Christmas wishes.

A sampling of letters to Santa

In Los Angeles, ground zero for Operation Santa is the massive postal processing facility on Central Avenue.  Weeks before the holiday, people stream in at appointed times to sift through letters, choose one or a few to fulfill, go shopping, and then return in the days before Christmas to mail the gifts.  The post office codes each letter and masks the return addresses to protect the security of the kids.  (Of the millions of letters that stream in each year, 15% are “adopted,” said a USPS spokeswoman.)

Employees of a consulting firm that "adopted" 40 Santa letters
Employees of a consulting firm that “adopted” 40 Santa letters
Shepherding Christmas packages for people she'll never meet
Shepherding Christmas packages for people she’ll never meet

On the Friday before Christmas, we visited the post office to talk to people about what propels them to engage in such selfless giving, particularly at such a busy time of year.  “It’s Christmas,” said Tu Mac, the CEO of a consulting firm based in El Segundo, with a shrug, as he and coworkers loaded up dozens of boxes to ready for mailing.

Most of the people I talked to chose letters based on need.  While many kids wrote to Santa asking for luxury items like iPads, iPhones and flat screen televisions, many more were written requesting basics, like food or clothing.  One woman chose a letter from a family of six kids who wanted to go to the zoo.

“If a kid’s asking for underwear, you know things are tough,” said a woman named Tonya, who was one of a number of people here on behalf of their company.  (She brought 20 letters to the office, hung them on a Christmas tree, and let coworkers choose the one they wanted to fulfill.)  She said she started doing this to set a good example for her 10-year old daughter.  “When we were wrapping gifts last night, she said, ‘I hope when they open it they know it’s from Santa,'” she said.  “Believing in a physical Santa or not isn’t what it’s all about.  Santa is about the spirit of the season.”