Volunteers strive to save Santa letter service
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Santa’s “elves” at the North Pole have been given their walking papers — but they’re not going quietly.
The volunteer “elves” are trying to counter a decision by the U.S. Postal Service to discontinue a program begun in 1954 in the small Alaskan town of North Pole, where they open and respond to thousands of letters addressed to “Santa Claus, North Pole” each year.
“The city was founded on the Christmas theme,” Gabby Gaborik, chief elf among several dozen volunteers, said Thursday. “This is our identity. This is North Pole, Alaska.”
Gaborik said he met with Postal Service officials this week to come up with an alternative. He’s now working with local government officials to get “101 Santa Claus Lane” as an address for his group, Santa’s Mailbag. That way children will have a specific destination for their letters, allowing volunteers to run their own program and bypass stringent new rules implemented by the Postal Service after security issues arose in a similar program in Maryland last year.
Gaborik believes his town’s name gives the local effort more cachet than other destinations.
People in North Pole are incensed by the changes. The letter program is a revered holiday tradition in North Pole, where light posts are curved and striped like candy canes and streets have names like Kris Kringle Drive. Volunteers in the letter program even sign the response letters as Santa’s elves and helpers.
The North Pole program was stymied by a tighter process put in place nationwide by the Postal Service after a postal worker in Maryland recognized a volunteer with the agency’s Operation Santa program as a registered sex offender. The worker intervened before the individual could answer a child’s letter, but the agency viewed the scare as a reason to tighten security.
The Postal Service had already restricted its policies in such programs in 2006, including requiring volunteers to show identification. But the Maryland episode prompted more changes, such as barring volunteers from having access to children’s last names and addresses. The Postal Service instead redacts that information from each letter and replaces the addresses with codes that match computerized addresses known only to the post office.
It’s up to local managers to determine whether to go through the time-consuming effort, but the new restrictions must be applied if letter programs are continued. The restrictions don’t affect privately run letter efforts.
The Postal Service decided this month to end the North Pole letter program, saying dealing with the tighter restrictions isn’t feasible in Alaska. The agency considers the North Pole effort part of its giant Operation Santa program, although locals like to think of their program as unique.
“It’s always been a good program, but we’re in different times and concerned for the privacy of the information,” said Anchorage-based agency spokeswoman Pamela Moody.
Another issue raising the hackles in the community of 2,100 is a second, separate change. Anchorage — 260 miles to the south — is processing mass quantities of out-of-state requests for North Pole postal cancellation marks on Christmas cards and packages. That work used to be done in Fairbanks, just 15 miles away.
Moody said as many as 800,000 items were processed last year, an overload Fairbanks is not equipped to handle. Anchorage is the only city in Alaska with the high-speed equipment necessary to do the job. Postal Service spokeswoman Sue Brennan said the move is a matter of resources and finances for the agency, which lost billions of dollars in the last fiscal year.
Santa Claus House, a North Pole store built like a Swiss chalet and chock full of all items Christmas, sells more than 100,000 letters from Santa, and one of the lures is the postmark.
Store operations manager Paul Brown also believes his business will be affected under changes to the volunteer Santa letter program because tens of thousands of letters are addressed to Santa Claus House, North Pole, Alaska. Those letters will still be forwarded to volunteers. Those intercepted by the Postal Service will probably eventually be shredded.
Alaska’s congressional delegation has stepped in to find a solution. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Democratic Sen. Mark Begich and Republican Rep. Don Young have sent letters to Postmaster General John Potter expressing their concerns over the changes.