Friday, December 21, 2012

Special delivery to the North Pole

Lake-area post office employees answer letters as Santa surrogates.

Postmaster Bobby Hogan reads a letter addressed to Santa Claus in his office at the Moneta Post Office.

Postmaster Bobby Hogan reads a letter addressed to Santa Claus in his office at the Moneta Post Office.

Letters written to Santa Claus almost always include a promise that the writer has been good.

Letters written to Santa Claus almost always include a promise that the writer has been good.

The handwriting is that of a very young child: large blocky letters painstakingly printed on crumpled lined paper. The words "hulk puncher" and the phrase "I have been good" are barely legible.

"They always mention how good they've been," said Moneta Postmaster Bobby Hogan.

In a cycle that roughly begins after Thanksgiving, four letters addressed to the jolly old elf were waiting in Hogan's office. Before year's end, there will be an additional 10 to 15 notes, he said.

"I don't think [a child] wrote this," Hogan said. "It's pretty fancy handwriting for a child."

Toy requests typically follow the gender divide, Hogan said. Little boys ask for sports equipment. Girls, for dolls and clothes.

"Then you have your young tech kids, these are going to be your future IT [gurus]."

In addition to a bow and arrow, one child requested a Samsung Galaxy S II smartphone. The child with the strangely mature penmanship included an advertising insert for a $229 motorized toy tractor.

"I want to live in his house, he wants big toys," Hogan said.

Sometimes requests are not driven by self-gratification. Hogan said the Moneta Post Office once received a letter from a child requesting a good Christmas for her sick brother.

"It tugs your heartstrings," Hogan said.

There are eight post offices serving the Smith Mountain Lake area. The Goodview branch has received only one letter to Santa this year, according to temporary Postmaster Cathy Caudill.

"Usually when we get it, we forward them on. We don't actually open them here," she said.

The volume of letters received by the other seven locations ranges from zero to almost 30, such as those received by the Union Hall branch.

Many of these locations maintain a policy to forward Arctic-bound letters, unopened, to Roanoke. From there, they will be shipped to Charleston, W.Va., where there is an employee who has agreed to act as Santa's surrogate.

For those children who don't include a point of origin on their letters, Hogan asks his carriers to note the child's address during pickups. A preprinted response on colored paper, signed by Santa, will be delivered to the letter writer. Santa informs the child that his or her correspondence has been received and to continue with the good work.

Hogan said responses are mailed a week or two after the original letter, "to give a realistic time frame."

"I think it's important that the kid get some kind of acknowledgement from Santa," he said.

That sentiment is echoed by Huddleston Postmaster Babette Lee. Before her move to the Huddleston post office last year, Lee was Santa's scribe at the Moneta branch.

It was a task she took seriously.

If more than one letter was picked up from an address indicating there were siblings in the home, she would avoid using the same preprinted form to make her response. In addition, a special Santa stamp and a calligraphy pen were used to dress up the correspondence.

If the Huddleston branch does receive a letter, Lee said she intends to buy special holiday-themed paper to add extra visual appeal to her replies.

"That's what the season is all about," Lee said. "I enjoy it. It's nice to know that's how a child learns to write letters."

Correspondence addressed to Saint Nick is not unique to Virginia. 2012 will be the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Postal Service's Letters to Santa program, which allowed postal employees and citizen groups to respond to the Christmas letters.

Sporting a close-cut salt-and-pepper beard and spectacles, Hogan bears a passing resemblance to Santa Claus as he peers through each letter.

"Mommy, Daddy, and Santa - if you give me all these things for Christmas, I will be the happiest little girl in the world," wrote one child.