A child sits down and writes a letter to Santa Claus, spelling out what he'd really like for Christmas. He addresses it to "Santa Claus, North Pole" and drops it in a mailbox. You might think the letter then disappears into a mountain of kids' mail at the dead letter office.

Not so. Although each local postmaster sets his or her own procedures, most U.S. Post Offices see to it that all letters to Santa--thousands and thousands of sacksful each year--are read by somebody. If there's any sign that the writer might be a needy child who won't receive gifts any other way, the missives are forwarded to service groups, such as the Lions, the Rotary, and the women's auxiliaries of the postal unions. They do their best to see to it that the children are not disappointed.

The official recipient of Santa mail in the District of Columbia is George Conrad, a Postal Service employe who's been reading the kids' letters for the past three years. Conrad says most of Santa's correspondents know precisely what they want, and set their wishes down in careful lists. And most, in the spirit of the season, promise St. Nick that milk and cookies will be waiting by the chimney.