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Letters to Santa: Heartbreaking requests among the predictable lists

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 13, 2010; 9:32 PM

Employment figures, economic indicators, stock prices - bah, humbug! Read some letters to Santa if you want to understand the Recession That Will Not Die.

There are letters from kids, hyped up on endless TV commercials and long histories of getting what they want, seeking entire Barbie ecosystems or absurdly expensive video game systems. And there are heartbreaking missives from those simply asking for a pair of shoes for a grandmother.

In my household, I began to worry for my child's soul about two weeks ago, when the "crismus list" being feverishly composed at my kitchen counter began taking on a Unabomber-like quality. My first-grader attacked this list with a ferocity and single-mindedness I had never imagined possible for his wiggly self.

Succinct, it is not.

Constantly revised and annotated, its items number roughly 37 as we embark on the 12 days of Christmas.

Not only are his desires written in florid detail, but he has helpfully provided Santa with model numbers and prices: "generl greevisis starfitr 8095 $49.99." (Translation: He wants a Lego spaceship called the General Grievous Starfighter. But no way in the world is Santa spending $49.99 on it.)

This is the child whose nightly homework sessions resemble prison interrogations, so torturous is it for him to write one sentence describing what Dolores the cat did in the book he read.

I was curious to see whether other children newly empowered with the skill of writing are equally gripped by such naked greed, despite numerous lectures about scaling back and lowering expectations this year.

So I called one of my mommy friends to ask about list-writing in her household.

When her 6-year-old sat down to the task, she was also told to write a list of gifts for others.

Good idea. Parenting jealousy began to creep in. Why didn't I think of that?

"So, what did her list look like?" I asked.

"Well," my friend hesitated, "she came up with just one thing. And was really proud that she narrowed it down to one."

"And? What was it?" I said, bracing for something about a sack of rice to feed a small village.

"A remote control," she said, exhaling. "To control the world."

It got better.

The mini-mastermind in a pink headband left out a letter in the missive, addressing her humble request to"Sata."

So when Mom gently suggested that she forgot an "N", the 6-year-old quickly added it on, thus appropriately asking "Satan" for a world dominance remote control.

Awesome.

I had to see more letters. So I called the U.S. Postal Service and asked whether I could sit in on the sorting when they go through the letters to Santa that come pouring in every December.

When I walked into the Brentwood postal facility in Northeast Washington, a woman working there handed me a pile of 11 letters. They were pretty predictable: requests for roller skates, shoes, Legos, baby dolls, bikes, "a toy horse with hair," iPods, "cumputers," Barbies, "a toilet seat for my aunt."

There was at least one poignant line about a mother: "Her bills is killing her." And there was that request for shoes for Grandma (size 7).

I sifted through them quickly and asked for more.

"That's it. As far as the ones written by kids," said Sharon Tennison, the local post office spokeswoman.

"What do you mean? What about all those?" I asked, pointing to stacks on two other desks.

"The rest we got were from adults," she said. "They started coming in August."

"Letters to Santa? From grown-ups?" I asked.

Nearly 300 letters sat on the other desks, written in neat print or loopy cursive script, detailing jobs lost and hungry children, addressed by adults to a man in a red suit who is apparently their last hope.

"I'm a single mom living in the D.C. General shelter with my kids," one letter began. It ended not with a request for toys or bikes or a remote control, but for clothes. And instead of model numbers and prices, she included her children's shoe, underwear and clothing sizes.

"I want them to know there is hope," she wrote.

They went on and on like this, hundreds of Hail Mary passes to Santa or the Postal Service or just anyone who might get the letters and read them. Some were optimistic enough to include addresses and names, should a secret Santa choose to respond.

Others were nothing more than handwritten prayers signed with a single name, letters in a bottle sent adrift. A last resort, or maybe just catharsis.

"We saw a few last year, but it was never like this," said one of the clerks who was sorting mail, shaking her head as she opened yet another one from a mother.

The story has been the same across the country, where big-city post offices are seeing more requests for food and clothing, rather than toys, and more parents are doing the asking.

For about 100 years, the Postal Service has had volunteers help answer the letters, either by writing back or actually fulfilling some of the requests. Operation Santa took a decidedly millennial turn last year, after a Maryland postal worker recognized a registered sex offender among the volunteers who got the address of a child who sent a letter to Santa.

Now, Secret Santas who want to help out have to register with a photo identification before they can adopt a family. Then, clerks redact any names and addresses on the letters and assign each request a number. The benefactor can then send a gift to that child's coded identity. Yes, Virginia, we have new security measures.

They weren't even going to do it in D.C. this year, with everyone stretched so thin and budgets tight, the postal employees said. But the letters kept coming with pleas for help, so they quickly marshaled a few clerks last week to go through the letters, and they'll be ready for adoption Wednesday.

The letter writers will be available for adoption this week at the Brentwood Post Office, 900 Brentwood Rd. NE. (You will be asked to fill out a form and present a picture ID to be a secret Santa.) Someone on the right end of the recession can take a letter and send off a jacket, some shoes, a Baby Alive or even a toilet seat to fulfill a request. But for many families who are homeless or jobless, what they really need can't be sent in the mail.

Maybe the little girl who wanted the all-powerful remote control had the wisest request of all.

Wouldn't it be cool to change the unemployment rate, homeless population and budget shortfalls with the touch of a button?

"Dear Sata . . . "

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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