This year, the 12 Days of Christmas is getting a special TEENPLICITY twist – 12 Days of TEENPLICITY! From Saturday, December 12th through Wednesday, December 23rd, we will be posting a new holiday-themed feature each day! Including interviews with this season’s merriest entertainers as well as tips for the best holiday treats, we hope this celebration will bring some joy and good cheer to all during a very tough year.
As part of this special event, the 1st Teenpliciday is about the wonderful program in the United States, USPS Operation Santa. Created and run by the United States Postal Service, letters sent to Santa are posted online and are available to be adopted by volunteers to be fulfilled, a way to help out Santa during this busy time. Kim Frum is the Senior Public Relations Representative for USPS Operation Santa and spoke to TEENPLICITY all about the program!
Scrolling through the letters uploaded to the United States Postal Service Operation Santa website brings forward a mix of emotions. Nostalgia for the memories of past letters sent to Santa Claus is the first. Then a tug at the heartstrings, both heartwarming and heartbreaking.
The letters that the USPS collect to deliver to Santa host a multitude of wishes. Some letters wish for the newest gadgets, like an iPad, PS5, or a Nintendo Switch. Others request toys that have long been on the lists of senders, like a Barbie Dream House or Legos. Most revealing are the letters from parents, asking Santa for help creating a memorable Christmas for their families, or children asking for Santa’s help getting their parents a job, healing their family member, or even just hoping the man in red is wearing his mask and staying safe as he delivers presents to homes all around the world.
In 1912 Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock began to advise local post offices to open and respond to these letters to Santa – a way to help out the overwhelming amount of wishes he receives every Christmas.
“For so many years, kids would leave little gifts and Christmas wishes for Santa. Frank Hitchcock wanted to do something good for the community, so he allowed all the local postmasters, and eventually citizens, to respond to these letters,” Kim Frum, the Senior Public Relations Representative for USPS Operation Santa, says about the history of the program. What started as little gifts for the kids who wrote letters or a letter back ended up building the foundation for what the USPS Operation Santa program is today.
As the knowledge of what the USPS was doing spread, they began to receive more and more mail for Santa. In the 1940s, the program expanded to include companies and other charities to help answer and respond to the letters.
Now running for 108 years, Kim points out that the USPS has received hundreds of thousands -more likely millions – of letters to the USPS Operation Santa program.
“We’ve had some people who adopt every year because it’s part of their holiday tradition. Families adopt every year as part of their tradition. There are a lot of new people every year,” she says of the program’s volunteer participation. Due to the growing interest, USPS Operation Santa expanded, through pilot programs, across the United States. “We’ve decided that in order to make it accessible to more families to write in, more people to adopt, in 2017 we took the program online as a pilot in New York City.”
This pilot program only allowed New York City residents to adopt letters online, a way to gauge public reaction and interest. Kim says of this experience, “It was pretty successful, so from that success, we went to expand it to seven cities online in 2018 – but there were restrictions. Only letters from those seven cities were entered into the system and only customers from those cities could adopt those letters.” Despite the local restrictions, the program proved to be a success and encouraged further rollout.
“Building on that success again, we did another volume test in 2019 which was expanding to 17 cities.” While anyone in the United States could adopt the letters on the website, these letters only came from the participating 17 cities. Though that didn’t dissuade volunteers as it continued the success of USPS Operation Santa.
“At the end of last year, we decided that this year, we were going to take it nationwide. Letters nationwide could be entered. People nationwide could adopt and there’s no restrictions as far as adoption.” Offering an example, Kim explains, “So if you live in Florida, you can adopt a letter from Hawaii or Alaska.”
In the past, people were able to go in person to look through the letters, like at the James A. Farley Post Office in New York City right by Penn Station, due to the legacy program. However the current COVID-19 pandemic has put a pause on in-person letter adoption, the entire program online for the 2020 holiday season.
“It actually is fortuitous that we decided to go nationwide last year before this hit,” says Kim, citing that if they were relying on the legacy program still, it would present challenges for the participation of the program. She isn’t discouraged by the online-only aspect of this year. “We are hopeful that it will just continue to succeed as it has been, building on the success of the last three years.”
Kim’s connection with USPS Operation Santa began just prior to the online pilot programs rolling out. “I actually got involved with the program when I started working in the Postal Service in [May of 2016],” she shares of her journey thus far. By then, the program had already started their peak preparations. “We start peak preparations – holiday preparations – generally around February of that year,” she adds as an aside, laughing softly at TEENPLICITY’s astonishment. “There’s a lot that goes into peak season!”
When she joined the program, they were looking for fresh ideas and encouraged her involvement. “They said, ‘Hey, do you want to be a part of this?’ I said, ‘Yes, of course I do!’” Kim recalls of the moment her journey diverged onto the path for USPS Operation Santa.
Talking about the program at any point brings an immense amount of joy and pride to her voice. “It’s a fantastic program. It’s just unbelievable, knowing that I’m a very tiny part of helping make thousands of people’s wishes come true at the holidays. It’s an amazing feeling when you see some letters that people get back, [that] people post online. There are so many letters of thankfulness once the season’s over and [USPS] Operation Santa is over and done for the next year. People are so thankful. If reading the letters online don’t pull your heartstrings, these letters of thanks and appreciation really do the trick too. It’s incredible.”
In late November, one letter to Santa from a previous year went viral on Twitter, causing a newly sparked interest in the program for those who were unaware of it prior. The letter is simple and doesn’t ask for any material goods, but just a sign of acceptance.
“Dear Santa,” it begins. “ Do you support the LGBTQ community and if you can speak to God can you tell Him I love Him, and if He loves me for being gay. Thank you. Love, Will.”
The letter resonated with many, both within the LGBTQ+ community and outside of it, people understanding the desire for love and acceptance for who they are at their core.
“It’s hard to say. We don’t ever have any expectations because there’s really no way to anticipate how many letters we’re going to get from year to year,” Kim says when asked how this viral tweet could impact participation in the program, both senders and adopters. She does, however, point out the correlation between times of hardship and the number of letters that the USPS delivers for Santa.
“As an example [like] the 2007/2008 recession, times of hardship that happened throughout the country reflect an increase in letters,” she explains. Kim adds that while they don’t keep track and compare the number of letters during one hardship to the next, USPS Operation Santa is aware of influxes that occur during these moments in time. “In past times of natural disasters like the Camp Fire in California a few years ago [and] Hurricane Maria, we do get a lot of requests, obviously when times are really, really hard.”
She acknowledges, “This year because of the pandemic, it has impacted so many families in so many different ways, whether somebody has lost a family [member] or friend, whether somebody has been furloughed or completely lost their job, we expect that there may be an influx because there are going to be people that are in need this year.”
The spirit of the program, according to Kim, is to promote joy and kindness, and giving at the holidays. She says, “For so many people, being able to open gifts at the holidays no matter what holiday you celebrate, it provides a nice sense of normalcy and can provide happy memories. And that’s what the program is about – providing things for people in need, and to give them just a nice sense of normalcy.” It really resonates in the idea that despite all the troubling times one may be facing, receiving a gift from Santa can take their mind off of any struggles they are dealing with and bring about a spark of joy.
As of Friday, just one week into USPS Operation Santa this year, nearly 21,000 letters have already been adopted!
When adopting a letter from USPS Operation Santa, you will receive an adopter packet which explains how to go about getting the gifts and shipping them, crucial information considering the entire program keeps both parties anonymous. In addition to that, the adopter packet includes a note from Santa as the adopter never signs their name – remember, the gift comes from Santa! The note also explains what the program is to parents and guardians that way they’re not alarmed by a sudden package arriving on their doorstep.
If reading the letters online don’t pull your heartstrings, these letters of thanks and appreciation really do the trick too. It’s incredible.
Adopting a letter and getting the gift are only part of the process. The other important part is shipping the gift out. With Christmas just two weeks away, it’s imperative to get the gift out sooner rather than later.
USPS Operation Santa must receive letters to Santa by December 15th, and will close adoptions on December 19th. In order to make sure the gift is received by Christmas, Kim suggests that the 19th be the latest you consider shipping it out Priority Mail. The 18th is the deadline for First Class Package. For Priority Mail Express, the 23rd is the deadline.
“Just like with any gift, you don’t want to cut it too close,” she advises. She also adds to pay extra attention to the deadlines especially if you’re planning on shipping from the continental United States to Alaska or Hawaii, as they may have an earlier shipping deadline to be there by Christmas. (Please visit the USPS Operation Santa Holiday Newsroom for the complete list of suggested shipping dates.)
What keeps the magic of the USPS Operation Santa program alive, in addition to all of the volunteers who aid Santa in bringing Christmas gifts to families across the country, is that there is no requirement to be met for one’s letter to be posted.
“Every letter that we get that has a valid return address – because we need to know where to mail something through the Postal Service – could be published on USPSOperationSanta.com. The letters are never evaluated for their worthiness in any way at all,” Kim says. Whoever writes the letter doesn’t need to be under a certain age or requesting certain things, they just need to have a return address. “So if somebody asked for a Lexus, it could get posted.” Kim lets out a soft laugh as she admits, “Whether it gets adopted, that’s up to somebody who’s extremely generous. But the letters are not evaluated for worthiness in any way at all.”
While a Lexus is not a typical gift that someone might ask Santa for, there are plenty of others that cannot be packed up in a box to put under the tree. Some kids write to Santa in hopes that he’ll be able to get their parents a job, or to help heal a sick loved one. Others who are in desperate need have asked for a couch or a bed.
Kim says of these requests, “For letters that are asking for help beyond your traditional type gifts, they’re handled separately. They’re considered special request and they’re actually labeled that way on the site.” When reading letters, a special request letter will announce it at the top of the scanned note, written in red. One can also filter to read just the special request letters, hopefully finding one they are able to aid with.
“If somebody is looking for a job or somebody says, ‘My mom needs a car because she waits at the bus stop all the time to go back and forth to work,’ – things like that are considered special requests and they absolutely have their own special section on the website. People can go look and if they’re so inclined, they can adopt them.”
Coming on her fourth year with the program, it isn’t hard to imagine how USPS Operation Santa has affected Kim personally. So deeply involved in the program and passionate about its work, she laughs as she says during this time of year, her friends and family can’t get her to “shut up” about it.
“It’s such a great program!” she says, the pride of being able to participate in such a program taking hold of her voice. “It’s a little bit of time investment, a small bit of financial investment – depending on what you get. And you truly know that you’re making a difference in somebody’s life. Somebody asked for a book and you send them a book – it’s amazing.” It’s the smallest and simplest acts of granting a wish from Santa that brings her joy and touches her heart.
Most notably in her time with USPS Operation Santa, the years during Hurricane Maria and the Camp Fire in California stand out to her. She explains how families who lost everything in these natural disasters were asking for just everyday items from Santa. “To get a pair of shoes when all you had were the shoes on your feet made a huge difference to so many people, or clothes or books,” Kim explains. “Even gift cards to go grocery shopping to get the bare essentials like food because there are some families who are barely scraping by and they have a hard time affording food. So there are instances where people send gift cards for the grocery stores just so people can go and buy the basic necessities of food.”
She brings up the fact that for some, these letters are a reminder for the privilege they have even when it comes to a quick run to the store. “In your daily life, I don’t think a lot of people really stop to consider, ‘I’m going to go get a loaf of bread!’ and how easy that is for you to do, but it’s so difficult for other people.” She goes on to point out that some letters request things like food, a wheelchair, medicine, or even money to help pay for bills. “It really gives you pause to think, ‘Wow, I have the potential to help somebody.’ It’s a good feeling to know that you can help somebody.”
The gratitude that comes from USPS Operation Santa extends beyond just those who receive the gifts. Adopters also share their appreciation for the program and how it’s impacted them, as well as the tradition they hope to keep alive for years to come.
Kim recalls seeing a few posts from adopters on social media last year, discussing how great it was to participate in USPS Operation Santa and how appreciative they are of the program. “Occasionally we’ll get an actual handwritten letter into the office,” she says, “but a lot of the ones I saw were posted on social media last year. A lot of them were, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever heard about this program! I adopted a letter, sent this toy, and it really brought home to me the spirit of the season. I’m going to continue to do this.’ ‘It’s a family tradition. It’s a lovely program, it’s fantastic that you guys do this.’ It’s a lot of positive feedback from the adopters. And of course the recipients are just beside themselves.”
Recipients will write about how they can’t believe they actually got the shoes or backpack that they had been wishing for, amongst other things. The experience is just as magical for them.
For so many people, being able to open gifts at the holidays no matter what holiday you celebrate, it provides a nice sense of normalcy and can provide happy memories.
On the other side of things, local carriers and postal workers get to experience the joy of participating in USPS Operation Santa in their own way.
“When you get right down to it, postal workers are the ones that started the whole thing,” Kim points out. “It was the Postmaster who started it, it was the employees that began seeing the letters and wanted to do something about it. That spirit continues to now.”
Postal workers are a cornerstone of our communities, becoming familiar with the families on their routes and especially being champions of keeping our communities safe as they’ve continually delivered packages of essential items and other things to keep everyone safe, and sane, through the current pandemic.
“The postal workers, the carriers – they know their customers in their communities. They see it. They see people every day – they see the hardships and they want to help however they can. Whether it’s telling people about the program or delivering the packages.” Kim says that although they don’t necessarily know when they’re delivering a package that is a part of USPS Operation Santa, they’re aware that some of those packages are being processed and sent out. “The mail carriers are happy at this time of year to deliver packages because they know they’re delivering holiday cheer no matter what it is,” she says.
“The good thing about the program is if you want to adopt, guaranteed there’s a letter in the system that should speak to you on some level,” Kim says for those interested in getting involved. The site is updated daily with new letters that have come in for Santa, with wish-lists containing a variety of requests, candy canes and a Minecraft lamp in one, a number of letters asking for a new Elf on the Shelf, more asking for the hottest gaming system. “I know that a few people have asked questions [like], ‘Well, I’m not really financially well off. What can I do?’ Find something that speaks to you,” she offers as advice. “You don’t have to adopt the letter that’s asking for all the expensive stuff, or piles and piles of things. There’s something that can fit for everybody.”
Kim understands that people are concerned about finances, especially in such a turbulent year like this one has been. She points out that it doesn’t hurt to see what’s on the site. “There’s no set amount of money you have to spend to participate. There’s no amount of letters that you have to adopt to participate. You do what speaks to you.”
The spirit of USPS Operation Santa spoke to Dana Nachman in a special way. An award-winning director best known for Pick of the Litter and Batkid Begins, her latest project pulls back some of the curtain on the program and shows all angles – recipients, adoptees, and the people who are working hard behind the scenes to deliver the letters and presents, postal workers.
“She fell in love with the program. She wanted to bring it to the public to let people know about this fantastic program and we thought it would be a great opportunity as well,” Kim says of Dana and the USPS giving her unprecedented access to the operations behind the program. “We worked with her to bring it to life.”
Between the viral tweets, the documentary, and increased accessibility for USPS Operation Santa, the goal remains the same.
“[For] the team that works on USPS Operation Santa, the greatest hope is to have every single letter adopted. That is our wish every year, so that all of the people that write in can have their holiday wishes come true,” expresses Kim. “It would be great if we could do that. Depending on the number of letters, that could be quite a lot of gifts and quite a lot of wishes.” They’re not backing down from that challenge though. “As [an] example, last year – even as a volume test – more than 11,000 packages were sent out and nearly 950,000 people visited the website. There are people out there, they’re looking, and they’re adopting. We just hope that it continues to grow and continues to be successful from now and into the future.”
For more information on USPS Operation Santa, be sure to visit the website. From there, you can read letters sent to Santa this year that are ready to be adopted, check shipping dates for gifts, and see what other community members are saying about the program!
If you want to send a letter to Santa, it MUST be received by December 15th. The best way to reach him is to mail to this address:
123 ELF ROAD
NORTH POLE 88888
Thank you to Kim Frum from the United States Postal Service for speaking with TEENPLICITY about this incredible program!
*Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.