How To Be An Elf
On this page you will learn how to volunteer and where to volunteer for the wonderful USPS Operation Santa program ®.
Every year, the US Postal Service™ kicks off Operation Santa ® around the first of December, and we post a final directory of participating branches by that day.
First, a quick summary of the three main ways you can Be An Elf — and below that, we’ll go into more detail about Operation Santa.
1. The best way to help would be to visit a post office offering the program and adopting one or more letters. A link to the current list of postal branches offering the program follows below.
2. If you can’t volunteer your time, or if there is no participating postal branch near you, please donate online to Be An Elf or give by check. 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 many 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. The third way to help is to tell your friends about this program. Post or tweet our website url on Facebook or Twitter, and if you like, use our sample sample Facebook post and Tweets about Be An Elf, which tells your friends all about the USPS Operation Santa ® program, and how and where to volunteer.
Whether you adopt a letter, donate online to support our mission of sending gifts to needy children, or tell your friends to spread the word, you’ll be helping us recruit new volunteers for the USPS Operation Santa and Letters to Santa ® program.
Thank you for volunteering and being an Elf! Your and your family will catch the true spirit of Christmas, and you’ll put smiles on little faces come Christmas morning.
Please read on below for more details on how to volunteer.
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HOW DO I FIND THE POST OFFICE IN MY CITY WHICH OFFERS OPERATION SANTA LETTERS TO SANTA?
See Be An Elf’s National Directory of Locations of participating USPS Post Offices™. In 2016, only 15 branches nationwide are offering Operation Santa, almost always at a large mail processing station in a major metropolitan area. The program kicks off the first week of December, and most branches close it down 7 to 10 days before Christmas, in order to allow time to deliver volunteers’ gifts by Christmas eve.
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.
BASICS OF THE OPERATION SANTA PROGRAM
Before making Santa letters available to the public, postal workers in each participating branch give children’s letters to Santa an initial screening. They remove children’s last names and return addresses from the letters to be offered for adoption, and replace them with a numbered code written on each child’s letter.
Check our Locations page to learn the locations and days and hours for adopting letters. Some Operation Santa branches are open just two days per week, for only two hours at a time.
As you read through the children’s letters to Santa, you’ll select one or more to adopt that speak to you. Following that, you’ll purchase gifts for the child or needy family who wrote the letter.
Some volunteers prefer to adopt more letters and simply send Target or Amazon gift cards to the families. That way, the Moms do the shopping and wrapping.
Other volunteers organize a group of friends to first select letters with, and then shop with. Later, they have a Christmas party, wrap gifts together, and share the cost and the fun.
When your gifts are wrapped and ready for mailing, you’ll need to return to the same post office on “gift drop off” days only. Find out what the drop-off days and times are during your first visit.
In recent years, the USPS ® has offered the Operation Santa program at a single post office in 15 to 20 major cities.
Volunteers must return to the same branch where they adopted their letters, and drop off packages ready for mailing. As with the letter adoption days, gift drop off days are on tightly scheduled days and hours. Write only the code from each child’s letter on your outer package, and then purchase postage for it at that branch on the same day. The USPS will not permit purchasing postage for a package with no address, so do it when you drop off your gifts.
It’s possible that the USPS ® offers children’s letters from more economically challenged zip codes, but this has not been confirmed.
Many of the letters have been written by kids who ask for specific toys, and are not always as quick to describe the conditions they live in. But postal workers know many of the streets on the return addresses, and that may be one factor in their selection. Some kids are more open about their circumstances, and write that, “Dad lost his job, and we have no money to buy gifts this year,” or, “My Mom cries a lot. Our furniture is old and our refrigerator don’t work too good,” and so on.
SHOULD I PAY ATTENTION TO THE MOMS WHO ARE WRITING ON BEHALF OF THEIR KIDS?
Some of the letters to Santa you’ll read are written by Moms writing on behalf of their kids, who are often to little to write. Most who write likely know about the USPS’ Operation Letters to Santa ® program. They know when the program starts, because every year by early December, many of the participating post offices are already flooded with letters asking Santa for basic necessities.
It’s likely, too, that some of the Moms help their children as they write to Santa. Many of the letters in children’s handwriting cite the names and correct clothing sizes of all their younger siblings. To give kids the benefit of a doubt, more than a few children may have thought of their siblings in need entirely on their own, without any help from Mom. Of course younger siblings are often too little to write, and it makes sense that a low income Mom would write on their behalf.
Many Moms simply choose to write to Santa themselves; they almost always include the names, ages and clothing sizes of their kids. Some have babies and small children who can’t write to Santa on their own, of course.
The first instinct of many volunteers is to answer only Santa letters from children, and not from Moms. However, we have come to see how real the Mom’s letters are, and believe that the vast majority of these women are honest and writing Santa from their hearts, sometimes as a cry for help.
Indeed, only people in real need are likely to write to Santa asking for such basic household items. Many of the women who write are single Moms who are feeling sad and alone over the holidays. When we delivered gifts in person in the old days, before 2008, one Mom broke down in tears on her doorstep, saying she had no money to buy her kids gifts. She was totally surprised, as only her child wrote to Santa. You can view our photos page, for photos of her as she cried. It was moving for me and my friend Hans, as volunteers, to be sure.
This is about kids of course, but we’ve concluded that Operation Santa is also about helping the Moms with their kids, and making the kids smile. In sum, I encourage our volunteers to read the Mom’s letters, too, and take them as seriously as they take the letters from children. We even recommend enclosing a small gift for Moms, too; see below.
INCLUDE GIFTS FOR THE MOMS, AND FOR SIBLINGS
If the child’s letter mentions any siblings, you may wish to include gifts for them, lest some in the family get less than others. So we encourage including a small gift for the Mom, such as a toiletry item, perhaps cologne or a scented candle. Often the children writing to Santa are living with a single parent who may be feeling sad and alone over Christmas. Many have small babies, and it’s a difficult time for them. Your small gift may be the only present the Mom will get on Christmas morning.
SUGGESTION: MARK YOUR GIFTS “FROM SANTA”
We recommend marking your gifts “from Santa”, if you wish to. Selfless giving is sometimes the most rewarding kind, and more importantly, it’s fun to keep kids believing in Santa! Think about it. To be sure, that will be your call entirely.
WHY AREN’T THERE MORE POSTAL BRANCHES OFFERING THE OPERATION SANTA PROGRAM?
In 2009 I flew to Washington DC to meet with some high USPS ® executives at the national headquarters, and asked this question. I was told candidly that Christmas is the postal service’s busiest time of year, and they reminded me that the USPS ® was posting a loss in the billions. That has continued, sadly, as of 2014. Their loss is due to in part to the rise of email, USPS ® pension obligations, and other factors.
Considering all this, it’s much to their credit that the USPS ® continues to keep this wonderful tradition alive each year, at least in major cities where the public’s demand for children’s letters is strongest.
Still, we are hoping there will be more postal branches offering Operation Santa in future. One way to do this would be for the main Operation Santa post office in each city to distribute its Santa letters to satellite post offices in more affluent areas, like Beverly Hills. We’d love to see the number of branches, days and hours of operation increased, to make the children’s letters accessible to many more people. It’s up to you to make that happen; please see our FAQs page. Once the children’s addresses are removed and insurance issues are dealt with, perhaps they will even accept volunteers from the public to help staff the local programs. We are sure many people would volunteer, once liability issues have been addressed.
While a few branches in smaller cities offer the letters, mostly the program is offered in our largest cities. In the past, the USPS ® has allowed every postal branch manager to make the decision of whether or not to offer the Operation Santa program.
WHAT TO EXPECT AT THE OPERATION SANTA BRANCH
When the letters to Santa begin arriving at participating postal branches in late November each year, at some branches, 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. When you first arrive, you will 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 holiday, and two or three Postal Elves reading the Santa letters may be wearing Santa hats.
Once you are given access to the Operation Santa ® room, you will be able to read letters to Santa and select the ones which speak to you.
A few of the North Pole rooms are open only two days per week, some for just two hours per day. Each branch sets its own hours. Before you go down, see the current USPS National Directory of participating post offices, and check the days and hours of operation.
At some branches, postal workers pre-sort, screen and select the letters they feel are from neediest families and Moms. 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 manager adopts their own way of offering the program every year.
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.
Until 2008, volunteers could deliver gifts to families’ front doors. Today that is no longer possible. To better protect children’s privacy, that year the USPS ® began removing children’s return addresses from letters and replacing them with a coded 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 reading letters to Santa fills the “North Pole rooms” across the nation every 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.
CHECK THE HOURS BEFORE YOU COME DOWN. SOME OPERATION SANTA BRANCHES CLOSE THEIR ‘NORTH POLE ROOM’ BY 1PM, AND ARE OPEN ONLY 2 DAYS PER WEEK
Every participating Operation Santa branch sets their own hours of operation and the date they end the program.
As we mentioned above, a few of the North Pole rooms are open only two days per week, some for just two hours per day. Each branch sets its own hours. Before you go down, it’s important to check the current USPS National Directory of participating post offices, and note the days and hours of operation.
At some branches, postal workers pre-sort, screen and select the letters they feel are from neediest families and Moms. At some branches, you may see boxes of letters labeled “Needy Kids” and another labeled “Needy Moms” and yet another labeled “Wish Lists!” (kids who only ask for an X-box, for example.) Every branch manager sets the way their station’s program is offered every year.
In Los Angeles in 2013, the “North Pole room” was open only on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11am to 1:00 pm. Volunteers had to return to the post office with their gifts, with the numbered code from every Santa letter they adopted written on each package. Packages had to be ready for mailing, complete with postage, and delivered to the same post office where they got the letters, at specified days and times.
A few branches close their Operation Santa program as early as December 20th, while in 2013, New York City kept its “North Pole Room” open through Christmas eve.
Of course most children mail their letters to Santa Claus in early to mid December, but some needy letters are sent as early as mid November, especially the ones from needy Moms, or sometimes a sad Dad out of work.
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? CAN I JUST SEND TARGET OR K-MART GIFT CARDS?
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. His cost per family was $75 on average.
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. He’s also in our first YouTube video.
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.
Having a party where friends contribute gifts for kids, and wrap them together, is a great idea.
Whether you send wrapped gifts or a Target or K-Mart gift card is up to you. One year, as Be An Elf was selecting our initial pile of letters to send our gifts to, we noticed an elderly African American lady adopting ten (10!) letters. We asked how she planned to answer all those letters, and she looked up and replied with a wise smile, “Oh, I just send them all Target or K-Mart gift cards. I put them in a gift wrapped box, so it doesn’t look like cash!” This choice is up to every volunteer, but we don’t need to remind you that small kids do love getting presents under the tree, and it’s unclear how Mom will spend your money. If you do choose to send a Target or K-Mart gift card, at least the parent would have to spend it at those stores — and they know best what to buy for their kids.
Either way, select only those letters you can truly fulfill. Commit firmly to yourself before you leave the Post Office. When in doubt take less letters, even though many of the letters you read pull at your heart. Please don’t take home a child’s letter to Santa and let it go unanswered, because that needy letter might get answered by another volunteer.
A great and fun way to handle a large number of letters, perhaps five to ten letters, is to give a Christmas party. See below for ideas on that!
Hans Dohm and his friend Julie would typically responded to each letter with a package of ten gifts, ranging from $6 to $10 each. They included gifts for 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 first YouTube video, 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.
Some volunteers simply send Target or other gift cards — they’re easy to wrap and mail, and it’s a good bet that Mother knows best what will make her children smile.
RECOMMENDED GIFTS FOR CHILDREN
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.
Send your guests a list of suggested toys to bring, based on the letters and our gift recommendations, below. Share copies of the letters at the gathering. Before the party, delegate the shopping, perhaps one to two gifts per guest. Get together again to wrap the gifts with your friends. Some friends may prefer to contribute cash. Finally, a small group of you will need to return to the original post office to mail your gifts.
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 DO MY GIFT/S GET DELIVERED?
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!