For a letter to Santa, nothing beats pen and paper

Santa may be getting high tech, but kids are still old school

Sure, Santa has a Facebook page — in fact, he has 345,000 likes.

And children can contact him through plenty of Internet sites — such as santatracker.google.com and emailsanta.com — from which they'll get a response back electronically or by phone.

But the Baltimore post office still fields letters from kids who go old-school and apply pen to paper. Lilly wants a kitten — a real one. Four-year-old Olivia wants "any kind of game." Alyssa doesn't want him to forget her animals, including Tiger, who "would like some soft meats because he can't have hard ones," and Phoebe, who "would like a hug from heaven."

Such are the requests Santa Claus has been getting this year from Maryland children, thousands of whom have been mailing highly detailed letters — even in the age of email, the post office receives tons of old-fashioned, handwritten letters, officials say — to his North Pole address over the past weeks.

About 1,300 letters have found their way to the main Baltimore post office on Fayette Street, which has been serving as a repository for wish lists from all over the state. Although some local post offices retain the letters and answer them in their own way, many forward them directly to Baltimore, where a staff of volunteer elves pores over them and, on Santa's behalf, sends the children — at least those who remember to include a return address — a pre-printed reply.

In fact, a Christmas tree and special mailbox in the building's basement are earmarked for Santa's mail.

"This is our season," says Baltimore Postmaster Gary J. Vaccarella, who moved from Florida to Charm City this year. "It's awesome to see the joy on the children's faces when they come here and visit. It's very gratifying."

Reading the kids' letters to Mr. Claus (and ofttimes Mrs. Claus, too) offers a crash course on what's important to kids — it's nice to see that, even in such a highly technological age, plenty of youngsters still ask for a pony or other pet — and how selfless they can be sometimes. Not to mention heartbreaking.

"May I please have a healthy dad," writes a young girl named Piper from Columbia. Pleads another youngster, "I'd ask if you would give extra presents to kids who are homeless and poor." One unsigned letter, written in a barely legible scrawl, contains just the single world "parole."

"Many of the children are asking for something for someone else, for things other than for themselves," says Connie Jones, a 26-year Postal Service veteran who's one of a handful of elves helping to answer kids' letters from Santa's branch office on Fayette Street. Adds Jeneen Barner, an 11-year veteran who's also lending a hand, "Children need to have something to believe in. I just love the fact that kids still believe in Santa."

Postal Service spokeswoman Freda Sauter says the Baltimore office used to receive nearly all the letters sent by children from throughout the state; she remembers one Christmas when 5,000 letters ended up on Fayette Street.

Now, most letters (including the occasional typewritten ones) end up staying at the local post office. The Postal Service has no total number on how many Free State kids sent letters to Santa in 2014, but Sauter said she has been assured that "the number increases every year."

That wouldn't surprise Emily Thompson, director of the Santa Claus Museum and Village in Santa Claus, Ind. The museum, which has been answering letters to Santa since 1914, responded to 15,273 letters this year — the highest number they've seen in recent memory, she said.

Each child gets a handwritten response, Thompson said. "We do it the old-school way."

Not that new technology is being totally ignored. A few years ago, she said, the museum tried accepting email letters, but the response was so overwhelming that officials realized "it was going to be impossible" to answer them all. They've stuck to traditional letters ever since, and never find themselves wanting for business.

"The tradition has really held constant," said Thompson, who suspects that many parents, wanting to keep a tradition going that was handed down from their parents and grandparents, urge their kids to avoid the Internet at Christmastime. "We've got this wonderful tradition that links the generations of kids that have written letters to Santa. You can really trace the history of it."

In Baltimore, most of the area children who mail letters to Santa get a pre-printed (but hand-addressed) red postcard via return mail, assuring them that Santa has read and taken their letters to heart, and that he's busy fulfilling as many wishes as possible.

But some lucky letter-writers really hit pay dirt. Seven-year-old Maren Blanks, who lives in Rodgers Forge, got an actual, handwritten letter from Santa himself. In it, Santa said how proud he was of her for making the "nice" list, said he wasn't too worried about the weather ("Rudolph's nose is really bright this year") and complained that his Grinch detector just went off, so he'd better run and find out what that miscreant was up to.

"I found it in my mailbox," said Maren, who acknowledged it was pretty cool to hear from the jolly old elf himself — and that it makes her pretty optimistic she'll get the crafts paper she wants for Christmas. "I love crafts," she said, "but I barely have any paper."

Over at the Govans branch post office, which serves Rodgers Forge, mailman Charlie Lee said he was delighted to deliver Santa's letter to Maren. He's spent about 20 years delivering those letters; sometimes, as Santa is one busy elf, Lee even writes them himself.

"I just try to answer the kids' letters, try to put a smile on a child's eye," he says. "Some of the letters make you laugh; some of them are sad. I've gotten them both ways. The sad ones are the hard ones."

And then there are the ones that are neither happy nor sad, but mostly puzzling. Like the one from a young boy name Luke, who lives in Frederick and listed just a single item he wanted for Christmas: "the Star Wars movie."

The elves believe Luke may be originally from Tatooine and changed his name from "Skywalker" — but Santa took him at his word and mailed his response back to Frederick.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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