How To Be An Elf
On this page you will learn how to volunteer for the wonderful USPS Operation Santa ®.
First, a quick summary of the 3 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 go the USPS website, USPSoperationsanta.com, but before you do that, read this page, and scan the tips it offers. After you read what follows, then go to the USPS site to adopt a letter to Santa. You might find a shortage of “needy” letters, because volunteers are quickly adoptiong the ones asking for basic necessities. If you don’t find a letter that truly moves you, come back in a day or two. Keep reading please!
To access the letters online, at the page above you must first create a free account. Click on Sign in in the upper right corner, and when you get to the Sign in page, scroll to the bottom. There you will find a button to Create a account. After you have filled in your name, address, email and cell phone on the next screen, there is a short verification process in which you’ll need to check text messages on your cell, and type in the verification code you were texted. You will also need to check your email for verification of that.
It won’t be long before you get a message saying you’ve been verified, and may now view and adopt letters online. People are emailing us saying their last mailing address worked better than their current one.
Santa letters posted at the USPS site may be downloaded together with barcoded address labels for each letter you adopt. Later, your gifts can be mailed from any of 19,000 postal branches that offer “label scanning”.
Until the program went online in 2019, volunteers would traditionally walk into a limited number of post offices (down to under 2 dozen in recent years), and read letters alongside each other. In 2019, there are still two branches still receiving traditional walk-in volunteers, in New York City and Chicago. For the addresses and hours of the two remaining walk-in branches, or to find a post office that offers “label scanning,” please see our Locations page .
The beauty of taking the program online is that Santa letters may now be adopted from anywhere, and gifts may be mailed from nearly every city in the country. That means many more low-income kids will get gifts. Be An Elf is proud to be a tax-exempt charity which supports the USPS Operation Santa ® every year.
2. If you don’t have time to adopt a letter, buy gifts and ship them, or if you require a tax deduction, please donate online to Be An Elf or give by check. Your gift to our non-profit is fully tax-deductible, and we use online donations to adopt Santa letters ourselves. We send Target gift cards to the Moms, which enables us to adopt many more letters than in previous years. We have faith that the Moms know best what their children need; they will have to shop at Target, too, and they have stores everywhere.
Your contribution will also help us let more people know about the wonderful USPS Operation Santa ® program. You’ll be empowering us to recruit new volunteers, who will, in turn, buy gifts for additional needy kids, and our volunteers will let needy families know about the program, too.
Together, we will make more children in need smile on Christmas morning. Be An Elf is not affiliated in any way with the USPS Operation Santa ®; we are solely responsible for recruiting volunteers for it, and we support their great program in several very significant ways.
3. Another way to help is to tell your friends about this program, or let needy families know about it. Post or tweet our website to your followers on Facebook or Twitter, and if you like, use our sample Facebook posts or Tweets about Be An Elf, which tells your friends all about the USPS Operation Santa ® program.
Below on this page, you’ll learn how you can let low-income families know that they might be able to get extra Christmas gifts for their kids this year.
Whether you adopt a letter, donate online, or simply spread the word, you’ll be helping us to recruit new volunteers for the USPS Operation 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 more little faces come Christmas morning.
If you’re a child or parent who wants to write to Santa, please see our Writing to Santa page. If you’re an adult interested in volunteering, please read on below.
If you still have questions after reading this page, please see our FAQs page.
SCAN THE TOPICS ON THIS PAGE
CHECK OUT THE HEADLINES
IS THERE A POST OFFICE IN MY CITY WHERE I CAN WALK IN AND READ LETTERS TO SANTA?
There are only two that still offer the traditional walk-in program, in New York City and Chicago. In those cities, you may still read letters in person, alongside other volunteers, as in past years. For the addresses and hours of operation, see our Locations page.
The good news is, that by putting the letters online they are available for adoption in every city and town across America!
HOW DO I FIND A BRANCH THAT OFFERS LABEL SCANNING, SO I CAN MAIL MY PACKAGE?
BASICS OF THE OPERATION SANTA PROGRAM
Before posting at USPSoperationsanta.com, postal workers give letters to Santa an initial screening. They select the letters which hint, and sometimes shout, that the families need help for the holidays. Children’s family names and addresses are redacted from all letters to Santa before posting publicly. The USPS staff always forward every letter on to Santa, whether or not it gets posted at the site.
Of course the USPS elves remove last names and return addresses from all letters, and replace them with a code which is printed out with each letter.
In the traditional walk-in program of past years, letters adopted by volunteers at postal branches always had a numbered code written on their letter, and simply copied the code onto the address labels of packages before mailing.
In the online program, when volunteers adopt a letter, they print out the letter together with the coded address label to use when mailing their package.
Gifts must be mailed by December 20 at any post office that offers “label scanning” as a service. For instructions how to find one, see our Locations page.
Both our Locations page and our Writing to Santa? page show the list of “online cities,” where letters to Santa are being considered for posting online by postal staff. Letters mailed to Santa, 123 Elf road, North Pole 88888 will be sent to USPS teams in one of these cities, and reviewed for possible posting online at USPSoperationsanta.com. They can me mailed to that address from anywhere in the US.
YOU CAN HELP! PRINT AND POST UP FLYERS TO LET NEEDY FAMILIES KNOW ABOUT THE USPS PROGRAM. THEY NEED MORE LETTERS!
Get the word out to needy families with kids, and let them know they can write to Santa’s volunteers for extra gifts. volunteers are adopting the online letters so fast that on some days, there have not been enough letters to adopt.
That’s why a top priority is to get people who need assistance for the holidays to write to Santa. We have also suggested to the postal service that the set the website to allow each letter be adopted two or three times by different volunteers on days when there is a shortage of letters. This way, more volunteers can participate on those days, and some kids will get a few more gifts
If not enough families in need write to Santa, there will not be enough appropriate Santa letters at the website. That’s why letting our neediest families with kids need to know they can write to Santa is so important. You can help make it happen.
First, print out copies of the flyers the USPS has prepared for volunteers to spread the word. Post them up in local churches, on community bulletin boards, in markets in poor neighborhoods, in orphanages, youth detention homes, Child Protective Services offices, local foster care agencies, prisons and anywhere else you can think of. Many prisoners feel bad that they are unable to buy Christmas gifts for their kids.
In businesses where you post up flyers, always talk to staff first and tell them about the flyer. Ask permission to post it up. That way, it will not be taken down.
So that no one from the public pulls your flyer down, we suggest that you write at the top, Take a photo of this flyer as a reminder. See www.BeAnElf.org for great tips!
You can print out the flyers from USPSoperationSanta.com/resources. To access this page, you might be required to create a free account. To do that, go to USPSoperationSanta.com/ and click on Sign In in the upper right. On the next page, click on Sign in at the upper right. On the next page, scroll to the bottom and you’ll see Create an account. It’s a short process to verify your identity, which helps protect children. It doesn’t take long.
CALL LOCAL NEWS MEDIA AND SUBMIT OUR NEWS RELEASE TO EDITORS
Call or email the news tip lines and editors at local TV stations, radio stations, and newspapers, and urge the “assignment editor” at each to assign a reporter to cover this story. If you leave a voicemail, be sure to say the website slowly and take time to spell it out, as it can be hard to understand.
The news release on our Press Room page is aimed at creating greater public awareness of USPS Operation Santa ® program; email them that link, or fax a printout of the page. Let them know it’s important to get the word out locally to needy families; if you know a needy family who is planning to write a letter, offer to introduce them. That will make news coverage more likely.
The Postal Service sends out effective news releases every year, but amidst the deluge of news releases, many releases get lost or overlooked. Remind editors it’s not too late to cover this story.
News coverage is important, and we hope a donor to Be An Elf will come forward to fund our hiring a public relations firm this year. We’d especially like to have the help of a large PR firm like Slate, or another on this list of the top 20 Hollywood public relations firms. We’d ask them to enlist one of their film star clients to volunteer to adopt a letter.
The likely result would be coverage for the USPS Operation Santa program in People Magazine, Access Hollywood, and many other entertainment outlets. Without an A-list star, this branch of the media will not pay much attention. We ask only that they mention BeAnElf.org during coverage, as a charity which supports the program every year by offering an excellent guide to volunteering, and tips for those seeking gifts.
In sum, we want to let more people know about Operation Santa, and get them excited about it. Be An Elf’s news releases remind the press to cover this great USPS program.
IF YOU’RE AN EMPLOYEE AT A COMPANY, WE HAVE A PLAN FOR YOU TO ORGANIZE A GROUP OF EMPLOYEES TO VOLUNTEER
See our new Plan for Companies. We’d like you to share it with your HR Director, and get corporations involved, too.
SELECTING LETTERS TO ADOPT
As you read online through children’s and parents’ often sad letters to Santa, you’ll select one or more to adopt that speak to you. It might be a very young, single Mom letting you know she’s writing because her child is still too young to write. Take letters from parents and family members seriously, too. So many people are asking for help during the holidays. Read between the lines, and select your letter or letters.
Following that, you’ll purchase gifts for the child or needy family who wrote the letter you adopted. Some volunteers prefer to adopt more letters, and simply send Target or Amazon gift cards to the families. That way, the Moms do all the shopping and gift wrapping.
Many of the letters have been written by kids who ask for specific toys, and ask for new laptops and X-boxes. They are not always so quick to describe the conditions they live in. But postal workers know many of the streets on the return addresses, and that could be a factor in their selection of a letter.
By the way, we do not recommend giving video games! See our list of recommended gifts below.
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. Others only list toys. Look for signs of need as you read.
CALL FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS, AND ORGANIZE A GROUP TO DO THIS TOGETHER
Some volunteers organize a group of friends or neighbors, and select letters together and shop for them in teams. Later, the organizer can have a pot luck Christmas party, wrap gifts together, and share the cost, the tasks and the fun. We wholeheartedly recommend doing this. Contact a few friends and see! You could use our Plan for companies as a starting point; even the draft of a letter to employees at the bottom of that page could be used as a starting point to enlist your friends in this project. We’d suggest you keep the ratio of 3 people for every letter adopted, to control costs and the work.
GIVE A CHRISTMAS GATHERING
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 help get your friends excited about the project. 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. But what works best is one on one phone calls.
You could send your guests a list of suggested toys to bring, based both on the letters adopted and our gift recommendations, below. Share copies of the letters to Santa you adopted at the gathering, or ask everyone to bring one letter they adopted.
Remember that the cost of answering just one letter can reach $70 to $100, so to keep the per person cost reasonable and affordable, you might want to stick to a ratio of three or four friends for every letter your group adopts.
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.
Again, our Plan for Companies to adopt letters as a group can easily be applied to this, and it will also help you formuate a timeline and provide a list of tasks. Take a look!
In 2009, Elf Lauren of Brooklyn, NY, e-mailed us to say that she chose six letters. She wrote that she organized a party for neighbors in her apartment building, 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 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.
Be An Elf!
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.
IF YOU ARE SEEKING GIFTS FOR YOUR KIDS
Please don’t write to us asking us to send you money or send gifts directly to your kids. Our group adopts letters online or in person ONLY through the USPS program. We also spread the word about this wonderful program, recruit new volunteers for it, and plenty more. See our Writing to Santa? page if you are seeking gifts. Our tips will really help! Be an Elf!
MAILING YOUR GIFTS
When your gifts are wrapped and ready for mailing, you’ll need to mail your gift. This must be done by December 20th. If you adopted the letter online, when you printed out your letter, you also printed an address label to go with it. If you adopted the letter in person at one of the two walk-in branches in NYC and Chicago, your letter might have a code written on it.
Write only the code from each child’s letter on your outer package, or apply the address label, and then purchase postage for it at that branch on the same day.
NOTE: The USPS will not permit purchasing postage for a package with no address, so buy the postage when you drop off your gifts for mailing.
There are 19,000 postal branches in the US which offer “label scanning”. Find one on our Locations page.
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. Their letters tell their stories.
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.
IN PREVIOUS YEARS THE NUMBER OF WALK-IN POSTAL BRANCHES OFFERING THE OPERATION SANTA PROGRAM DWINDLED TO UNDER 20. NOW IT’S DOWN TO TWO BRANCHES. WHY?
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 year. 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 ® has faithfully kept this wonderful tradition alive each year, especially in major cities in recent years, where the public’s demand for children’s letters has been strongest.
And in 2019 they made a major investment in adding label scanning and took the program national, online. Now the letters are available everywhere in the US, and gifts may be shipped from almost anywhere in the US. By investing in the new online program launched in 2019, the USPS not only revitalized the time-honored program, but they also used technology to guarantee that many times more low-income children than in previous years will be smiling on Christmas morning. Bravo, USPS!
A NEW PLAN FOR COMPANIES FOR EMPLOYEES WHO WISH TO VOLUNTEER
Companies traditionally have been permitted to adopt 50 to 100 letters. We’ve written a new plan through which any employee may become an organizer, with the approval of management. Or management can become involved at the highest level. See our new Plan for companies at this site.
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!
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 a family in your community.
One way to manage the cost is to have 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 our Elf Patrick and team were selecting Be An Elf’s initial pile of letters to send gifts to, we noticed an elderly 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. We have faith that the great majority of the parents will buy presents for their kids, including things they need.
Either way, select only those letters you can truly fulfill. Commit firmly to yourself before you adopt online. When in doubt adopt less letters, even though many of the letters you read pull at your heart. Please don’t let a child’s letter to Santa go unanswered, because that needy letter might get adopted by another volunteer.
Again, a great and fun way to handle a large number of letters, perhaps five to ten letters, is to give a Christmas party.
Hans Dohm and his friend Julie would typically respond 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 found surprisingly deep rewards in being an Elf. In December, 2005, he and his friend Julie chose eleven letters to fulfill. Our Elf Patrick was there helping. 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, which could be done in person in those days. 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 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 really in need.
Use your judgment, and pick letters which speak to your heart.
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.”
PLEASE POST IN SOCIAL MEDIA ABOUT OUR WEBSITE AND THE USPS PROGRAM
Please post a link to this site on your Twitter, Instagram or Facebook pages, or post photos or videos of your time volunteering, Santa letter/s you adopted, and your Be An Elf party, too. Share our Facebook and Twitter pages, too; the icons are at top.
Please send us your photos and we’ll post them on our Facebook page. If you email us using the form on our Contact page, you will get an auto-reply with our direct email on it. Thank you!
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.
Volunteers instead may adopt children’s letters online at USPSoperationsanta.com and print out a coded address label with their letters. 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 any postal branch with “Label Scanning”. See our Locations page. 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!