How To Be An Elf
On this page you will learn ways to Be An Elf and volunteer, and how the wonderful USPS Operation Letters to Santa program works. Below you will find a list of recommended gifts, a description of what to expect when you arrive at a postal branch offering the program, and the best hours to come by.
Here you’ll also find a quick link to the current USPS National Directory of participating post offices. Every year the US Postal Service™ kicks off Operation Santa at the beginning of December, and we will post a link to the new directory at that time. In 2011, it was issued by the Washington DC headquarters on December 1st, the same day as their national kickoff news release.
Typically the Operation Santa program is offered at only a single post office, usually at a main mail processing branch in a large city. However, some rural branches also offer it. The USPS allows every postal branch manager to make the decision on whether or not to participate.
Our assumption is that if the Beverly Hills post office ever offers Operation Santa, it’s likely they will draw on children’s letters to Santa that were mailed from a more economically challenged zip code. Sadly, these days there are many of those.
We are hoping there will be more postal branches offering the Operation Santa program in future. It’s up to you to make that happen; please see our FAQs page.
If the child’s letter mentions any siblings, you may wish to include gifts for them, too — and perhaps a small gift for the Mom, such as a toiletry item like cologne or a scented candle. Often the children writing to Santa are living with a single parent who may feel sad and alone over Christmas. We recommend marking your gift/s “from Santa”; selfless giving is always the best kind!
You and your family will catch the true spirit of the holidays, and you’ll put a smile on one or more underprivileged faces on Christmas morning.
We invite you to volunteer. See below to learn how to do it!
How to Be An Elf
Here are three ways to be an Elf.
1. The best way to help would be to visit a post office offering the program, select one or more letters to Santa, buy gifts for the child of family who wrote the letter, and return to the post office to mail your package.
2. If you can’t volunteer your time, please donate online to Be An Elf or give by check. Online you may give anonymously. Your gift will help us let more people know about the wonderful Operation Santa program, started by the US Postal Service™ in 1912. You’ll be empowering us to recruit new volunteers who will in turn buy gifts for more needy kids. Together we will make more children in need smile on Christmas morning. Be An Elf is not affiliated in any way with the U. S. Postal Service, and we are solely responsible for recruiting volunteers.
3. Tell your friends — click on the Facebook or Twitter icons on the left! If you give a Christmas party, you can share the chores of shopping and giftwrapping. Post a link to this site on your Facebook page, send a Tweet, or copy our suggested draft of a message about us into an e-mail to your friends. Join us in recruiting new volunteers for Operation Santa!
See below for more details.
“WHICH POST OFFICE IN MY CITY OFFERS “OPERATION SANTA CLAUS” OR LETTERS TO SANTA?”
See the USPS™ National Directory of participating Post Offices™. In 2011, 75 branches nationwide offered Operation Santa, typically at a main postal branch in a large metropolitan area.
IF THERE’S NO POSTAL BRANCH NEAR YOU OFFERING THE PROGRAM
If there’s no branch near you, please see our suggestions for Other Ways to Be An Elf
WHAT TO EXPECT AT THE OPERATION SANTA BRANCH
When the letters to Santa begin arriving at participating postal branches in late November each year, postal workers read through the letters and divide them into categories like “Needy Kids,” “Needy Moms,” and “Wish lists”. While postal staff will not comment on the selection process, it’s very possible that the letters selected are mailed in from economically challenged zip codes.
Postal “elves” in “North Pole Rooms” or “Operation Santa Rooms” set aside letters to Santa which seem to be from the neediest kids and Moms. Every year, volunteers from the public are invited to read though them, and every year there are too many letters from needy kids, and not enough volunteers to answer them all. Be An Elf has received encouragement to “send us volunteers” from the USPS Communications office at the US Postal Service headquarters in Washington, DC.
The post office offering the Operation Santa program will likely be a large mail processing station, possibly with security at the front door. When you first arrive, you may be asked to show a photo ID and sign an application form. After that you will be guided to the “North Pole Room”. Some are decorated with Christmas trees and other holiday decor, and two or three Postal Elves reading the Santa letters may be wearing Santa hats.
Once you are given access to the “North Pole Room,” or “Operation Santa Room,” you will be able to read letters to Santa and select the ones which speak to you.
Many of the North Pole rooms close by 3pm; see WHEN TO VISIT THE POST OFFICE below. Each branch sets its own hours.
Postal workers have pre-sorted them and already selected the ones they feel are from neediest families and Moms. As suggested, at some branches, you may see boxes of letters labeled “Needy Kids” and another labeled “Needy Moms” and yet another labeled “Wish Lists!” (I want an X-box, Santa!”) Every branch adopts their own policy.
Please see our list of recommended gifts below.
The contact information on your ID will be linked to each letter you take home. The post office keeps careful track of every child’s letter it gives out, and associates them with those who take home letters. Postal workers remove the home addresses of children from all letters, and substitute a number, so that no member of the public will know a child’s home address.
The video on our Home page was filmed Christmas Eve, 2007, and shows a volunteer delivering gifts to families’ front doors. Today that is no longer possible. To better protect children’s privacy, in 2008 the USPS® began removing children’s return addresses from letters and replacing them with a number.
Volunteers must return to the postal branch where they got the letter, with their package wrapped for mailing. They will need to add the child’s original letter number, as well as postage, to their package. Postal workers take over the Elf job from there, and add the child’s address and deliver gifts to families by Christmas eve.
The Christmas spirit of the volunteers quietly reading letters to Santa fills the “North Pole rooms” across the nation in December. You may be sure there will be surprise and delight on the children’s faces, the moment they open your gifts.
Companies may often take 50 to 100 letters; each postal branch sets its own rules about the maximum number of letters.
MANY OPERATION SANTA BRANCHES CLOSE THEIR ‘NORTH POLE ROOM’ BY 3PM
Every participating Operation Santa branch sets their own hours of operation, as well as the date they shut down the Operation Santa program.
It’s a safe bet the “North Pole room” will be open from around noon to 3:00pm.
Some branches close their Operation Santa program as early as December 20th, while others keep their “North Pole Room” open longer.
Of course most children mail their letters to Santa Claus in early to mid December. Some are sent as early as mid November, especially the ones from single Moms.
We hope you’ll go read letters in a North Pole room, take home one or more that speak to you.
HOW MANY LETTERS SHOULD YOU RESPOND TO?
Our friend Hans Dohm was an volunteer Elf for many years. He told us he would typically read 50 to 100 letters, and buy gifts for ten families. He bought each family an average of $10 gifts for $6 to $10 each.
That’s a lot! We recommend that you start small, with one to three families, since you may be tempted to take on more children than you can actually provide gifts for. There are so many! You can see Hans’ photo on our Who we Are page with more of Hans on our Photos page.
Be realistic, and don’t overextend yourself, we want you back again next Christmas! So start small, and know that you are making a difference to someone in your community.
Select only those letters you can truly fulfill. Commit firmly to yourself before you leave the Post Office. Don’t take home a child’s letter to Santa and let it go unanswered. When in doubt take less letters, even though ten letters may pull at your heart.
A great and fun way to handle a larger number of letters, perhaps five to ten letters, is to give a Christmas party, and send everyone a list of suggested toys to bring, based on the letters and our gift recommendations below. Share your letters at the gathering — and delegate the shopping, perhaps one to two gifts per guest. Get together again to wrap the gifts with your friends. Finally, a small group of you will need to return to the original post office to mail your gifts.
Hans Dohm and his friend Julie would typically responded to each letter with a package of ten gifts, averaging about $10 each. They included siblings who were mentioned in letters, as well as a gift for the Moms. If you wish to do the same, consider that one letter may be enough for your Christmas party. It’s a good deal of work to volunteer for this alone, but that can offer rewarding as well.
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
Hans Dohm, who is interviewed in our YouTube video at the bottom of our Home page, found surprisingly deep rewards in being an Elf. In December, 2005, he and his friend Julie chose eleven letters to fulfill. Some are posted on our Real Letters page. They did the shopping and gift wrapping at home together, and delivered their gifts in person to the needy families on Christmas eve. Smiles all around! As we said, since 2008 only postal workers may deliver gifts.
Hans is a modest, quiet man of depth. He told us he was always humble and very respectful when delivering his gifts. He never let the family know that he was answering a child’s letter to Santa Claus, and his gift tags simply read, “From Santa.” This kept the smaller kids believing in Santa, and most parents prefer that. He never gave used clothes or toys, only new ones, as he was sensitive to the feelings of the families he bought gifts for. We agree — your used things should go to goodwill! Giving selflessly is perhaps the core of the Christmas spirit.
HOW DO I KNOW WHICH LETTERS ARE FROM TRULY UNDERPRIVILEGED KIDS?
Postal workers read and sort the letters, and are good at telling which letters are from truly needy kids. For example, if a child is asking for a “warm coat” or food, or clothes for other family members, that’s a sign of true need.
Some of the letters will be from Moms, most of them single and in poverty. Yes, some of them will already know about this program, and that is apparent in reading some of the Moms’ letters. While some readers may think the worst and be cynical, our feeling is that they would not be writing, asking strangers for clothes and other necessities, unless they were in need.
Use your judgement, and pick letters which speak to your heart.
There is no shortage of letters in the “Needy kids”, “Needy Moms” and “Needy families” boxes in the North Pole room. You’ll be able to choose among the letters, and you will see there are many. Most will go unanswered.
If you are in doubt, ask the postal workers in the room why they think a particular letter was chosen. Postal workers who read and screen the letters to Santa have often done this in the past. They know what to look for.
The letters which moved us the most, to which Hans Dohm and Julie responded with gifts, are posted at our Real Letters page.
REMEMBER MOMS, DADS, AND SIBLINGS
At the risk of repeating our mentions of this above, if your budget permits, do your best to include gifts for parents and siblings. A large percentage of Americans live below the poverty line and are single parents. Like some of Elves who volunteer, many of the Moms, and some Dads, also feel lonely and sad during the holidays.
So, in addition to answering a child’s request of Santa, Hans almost always included gifts from Santa for the parent the child referred to in their letter. Hans would buy gifts for siblings, too, lest they might feel left out and get jealous — and if an only child, guess who got ALL the gifts!
Just read the child’s letter, look into your heart, and you will know what to do.
RECOMMENDED GIFTS FOR CHILDREN IN NEED
Great gift ideas for kids include backpacks or book bags for school, pens, paper, and other school supplies, and new clothes, like little T-shirts. It’s wonderful, too, if you can answer the child’s wish in their letter. They often specify clothing and even sizes, probably with a little help from Mom.
Note that used clothing or articles will not be so well received. As mentioned above, we do not recommend giving your used clothes. They may be poor, but many are proud and sensitive about being needy. They may feel insulted. Give your used things to Goodwill.
The parents are often single Moms, and we suggest adding a gift for Mom which she could not afford to buy for herself, like a simple cologne or special holiday treat.
Think of things you might like to receive if you had no money to spare for a small luxury. New items of quality are always welcome.
If your budget permits, try to remember siblings or other kids who may live in the same house, too. Often, kids write about their siblings in their letters to Santa.
Hans Dohm would always buy about 10 gifts per household, wrap them all individually, and tag them all “From Santa Claus.”
GIVE A CHRISTMAS PARTY!
Share the work, share the cost, and share the fun! Ask each friend to bring one or more gifts, and wrap them all at your party.
Including a link to our site with your invitation will get more friends excited about it; feel free to copy a few words from our Home page to explain the idea to your guests, and use Twitter and Facebook or eVite. Our sample Message also has some excellent wording to work with.
Giving a “Be An Elf” party was inspired by Elf Lauren of Brooklyn, NY, who e-mailed us in 2009 to say that she chose six letters. She wrote us that she organized a party for her friends, and sent them each a wish list of specific gifts requested by kids in the letters she got. Her group bought gifts for six Moms and 13 children (some of the letters she chose had mentioned siblings).
Guests were asked to bring a gift to her party, or to make a donation to help fund her shopping.
The following year, 2010, she got her whole apartment building in Brooklyn involved. She approached everyone through Facebook, even her Condo Board.
We think having a party is a creative way to share the fun, the cost and the work involved.
HOW MUCH DO I NEED TO SPEND?
Elf Hans Dohm, who was the initial inspiration for this website, always bought gifts using his own money, and shopped together with his friend Julie.
He told us he spent an average of about $60 per letter, and got gifts for the whole family, not least the Moms. The ten households Hans chose in 2004 required a cash outlay of about $600 on his part. You may not wish to buy gifts for ten letters!
Hans told us that in his years of doing this, he was often greeted by a single Mom at the door. So he began including small gifts for the Mom in each family, and he thought that would make a small difference to her.
What you spend is up to you — but anything at all you can contribute will help make a child’s Christmas brighter.
Please don’t write to us asking us to subsidize your shopping, or to send gifts to your kids — we get asked! Instead, what we do is to spread the word about this wonderful program, and recruit new volunteers for it.
Be an Elf yourself!
PLEASE SEND US SCANS OF YOUR SANTA LETTERS
Consider adding your story to our archives. Please post a comment on our Twitter or Facebook pages, and post photos or videos of your time volunteering, and your Be An Elf party too. See the Facebook and Twitter icons at left!
Also, please send us color scans of your Santa letters. JPEG files of about 2MB are the best kind for us to work with, but smaller JPEGS or Acrobat / .pdf files are okay, too.
If you can’t scan them yourself, any Kinkos can do it inexpensively and quickly for you.
Then e-mail the scans to us, or mail us a CD. We will review the images of Santa Letters we receive and may post them on our Real Letters page.
Our mailing and email address are both on our Contact page.
HOW SHOULD I DELIVER MY GIFT/S?
Only postal workers deliver gifts to children. In 2008, because of concerns about children’s privacy, the postal service started a new policy of removing children’s return addresses from all letters and replacing them with a coded number.
Sadly, it’s no longer possible for volunteer Elves to deliver gifts to the homes they are intended for, as shown in our YouTube video at the bottom of our home page.
Volunteers are instead given children’s letters with only a number on them. After shopping and getting their gifts ready for mailing, they must return to the post office, add postage to the packages, and mail them at the same post office where they first got the letters to Santa. Postal workers then deliver gifts — it’s their turn to be elves for Santa. Some even work delivering packages on Christmas Day, dressed as Santa Claus.
Also see our FAQs page.
Your donation to Be An Elf will further our mission and help us recruit new volunteers. Put smiles on more kids’ faces by empowering us to recruit new volunteers!
Another great way to support our mission is to let your friends know about our group. If you like, use our suggested draft of a message to your friends to tell them about us. Feel free to rewrite the message any way you wish.
Post a link to this page on your Facebook page, or Tweet about us!
Thanks for being an Elf!
Logo design donated by Giovanni Dizon (gdizon at mac.com). Principal
photography licensed through istockphoto.com. Additional photography
donated by elves. Video filmed by Patrick Reynolds and edited by James
Connolly(jamespc1234 at msn.com). Principal website design and digital
imaging donated by art101.com. Updated website design by KevcoWest.
Additional website design and site updates donated by elves.
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