MIAMI — The glittery and crayon-scrawled letters to Santa can seem so whimsical as they pile up in postal bins. Then, you read a letter like Michael's and reality hits.
"His grandfather just lost his job,'' said Kelly Levy, a marketing secretary and the head elf of the Letters to Santa program in Pembroke Pines, Fla. "So he's asking Santa to find a job for him.''
Wrapped inside the envelope was his grandfather's resume.
For more than a century, the U.S. Postal Service has pledged to read and respond to every single one of the thousands of letters sent to Santa Claus, the bulk of which officials say will arrive this week. And although it is a cute tradition carried on by the country's most innocent civilians, it is a psychological sleigh-full.
There are sons asking for their mother's return from Afghanistan. Questions about Santa's technological know-how. Detailed job qualifications for their out-of-work relatives, with a crumbled up cookie inside.
This year, for the first time, Broward and Miami-Dade post offices are participating in a national program that allows volunteers and organizations to sponsor some of the neediest children. The country's limping economic condition encouraged the district to start the program, said spokeswoman Debra Fetterly. Sponsors won't learn much more about the child than his or her age, first name and Christmas wish.
"We only decided to start the program when we could ensure the privacy and security of the child,'' Fetterly said.
Privacy for Santa Letters became a national issue when a postal worker in Maryland recognized that one of the volunteers for the Santa program there was a registered sexual offender.
The Post Office stopped the individual before he answered, but the incident served as a reminder that even the most cheerful of traditions need modern precautions.
Such a philosophy was raised again when a small town in Alaska named North Pole declared it would no longer stamp their postmark on letters children sent to Santa.
People wondered why -- Was it the sex offender scare? Was it the added workload to a stressed work place? -- and their decision made national news. The outcry was so strong that the Post Office decided to restart the program days after The Associated Press reported it was canceled.
Each year, at least 2,000 letters to Santa are recorded at processing centers in South Florida. A bar code transfers them to a separate bin.
The bins are then taken to an office in Pembroke Pines, north of Miami, where a committee of postal staff volunteers reads them.
"They are the elves who help Santa because he's very busy,'' Fetterly said.
The Post Office took on the task in the early 1900s, but the goal seems even more important in the digital age. A few children ask for St. Nick's e-mail address, but Fetterly said the number of hand-written letters has remained steady over the years.
Every child who writes gets a post card from Santa in return. Sometimes, the staff will even personalize an answer.
That would please Eddie, a 6-year-old who wants to know if his mom is lying to him.
"My mom used to tell me that the lights up in the sky were Santa's lights,'' he said. "I just don't think those are really your lights because they look exactly like the spotlights during concerts and other events. . . . Don't get me wrong I still believe that you exist. I am just not so sure about those lights.''
The vast majority of requests are typical: iPods, Nintendos, Disney princesses, toy cars, elves. Sometimes, the children will affix cut-outs from ads, Fetterly added.
They are even letting Santa know where the item is selling at a discount -- just in case times are tough for him, too.