With retailers running round-the-clock commercials hawking gifts from smartphones to video game consoles, some kids' Christmas lists can read more like catalogs.
Much simpler requests, it turns out, actually are fielded by a local "Letters to Santa" program run by the U.S. Postal Service in Philadelphia, which then links the Santa letters to generous people who fulfill the requests.
The initiative, which is run out of the 30th Street post office, received more than 500 missives this year. Over 400 of them were adopted by benevolent "elves."
"People who are in need at this time of year write in and ask for very basic necessities like, 'pay my heating bill' or 'a gift card for a supermarket' or 'warm clothing for my children,'" USPS spokeswoman Cathy Yarosky said. "We've even gotten letters that say, 'can you find a job for my father?' We have a lot of grandparents writing in for their grandchildren, saying, 'I'm watching my grandchildren and I don't have enough money to make ends meet.'"
"We get everything from individuals to a lot of companies and businesses that kind of make it a holiday tradition," Yarosky said. "As a matter of fact, the IRS took 125 of these letters, which was very kind and generous."
Though the tradition nationwide dates back to 1912, it didn't spread to Philadelphia until 30 years ago. Postal employees received a handful of undeliverable letters addressed simply to "Santa Claus, North Pole, Alaska." And then they began opening them.
"We expected to see lists and lists and lists," said Yarosky, a 32-year USPS veteran. "And we do get some 'I want an Xbox'-type stuff, but so many are from those who are genuinely needy. We have a child writing, 'I'm not asking for myself but I was wondering if could get truck for my brother.'"
Philly postal workers - many of which still annually adopt letters - began doing their best to respond to the most poignant pleas.
"When you read the letters, they bring tears to your eyes and make you say, 'we've got to do something,'" Yarosky said. "It really started with employees pitching in and seeing what they could do. It's never been an official thing. It's a grassroots program, something people just want to do."
USPS began locally publicizing the philanthropic program, and it's since grown each year. Letters are now placed into boxes, sorted by the number of family members they contain. Volunteers can, beginning Nov. 25, rifle through and choose which to answer. After showing photo identification and filling out a form, they receive the letter writer's information. The program this year wrapped up Dec. 13, and the final gifts were shipped last Friday.
Yarosky said postal workers have come to look forward to the tradition each year, as it appears to bring out everyone's inner Saint Nick.
"We even had a woman come in two weeks ago, an older woman, and she didn't seem to have much but she just wanted to help someone else," Yarosky said. "She was like, 'I'm not sure if I can afford to give this or that, but maybe I have a few extra dollars.' Here is somebody who had so little but what little she had, she wanted to give to help somebody else. It was sad but inspiring at the same time. Things like that make this program worthwhile. It really renews your faith in Christmas."