NEW YORK – Santa Claus has dealt with the naughty and the nice before, but his potential new foe — bioterrorism — is far more sinister.
That's why post offices are taking extra precautions this year to ensure the safety of the "elves" that handle the tons of letters to St. Nick.
"We're not going to cancel Christmas," said David Solomon, regional vice president of the Postal Service. "We certainly want people to feel comfortable about opening their hearts and bringing some happiness at this time of year."
With fears of anthrax still lurking in the public consciousness, mail sorters are being issued rubber gloves and protective masks, and children are being asked to stuff their envelopes only with a letter, and to be sure to include a return address.
The mail in New York City, which handles 250,000 letters to Santa in the largest such program in the country, this year is being sent to a contractor in Bridgeport, N.J., to be irradiated by ion beams.
Post offices across the nation each year turn into charitable outreach facilities of sorts, as volunteers sift through hundreds of thousands of letters. Most are from needy kids asking for basic necessities and toys.
"So often these kids write asking for Pampers for my sister, a coat for my mom," Solomon said. "That's the stuff that really tugs at your heart. They're not asking for computers or cars."
A letter written by a little girl from Brooklyn, N.Y., last year is a perfect example of this selfless spirit. She told Santa: "I have two friends ... I want them to have two Barbies. Can you bring them two winter coats because they do not have any ... Can you bring some school clothes for them too?"
In other parts of the country, particularly in places like North Pole, Alaska, and Christmas, Fla., the post offices are intent on keeping up their tradition of opening and replying to letters sent to the Claus family.
North Pole receives as many as 60,000 letters each year for their famous ho-ho-host. Nancy Cain Schmitt, the post office spokeswoman there, said there's not a chance anthrax will frighten away volunteers who help respond to letters.
"We're pretty sure we'll be able to get them all answered," she said. "We've had lots of people calling in to volunteer with the replies."
Down in Christmas, Fla., a man affectionately known as Santa, so named for his white beard and cheery disposition, refuses to stop helping reply to letters. After all, he's been doing it for 33 years.
"I had some fears, but we talked about it and decided to go ahead," Jack James told the Orlando Sentinel. James was issued gloves and a mask, just to be on the safe side.
For those still worried about the mail, there's always the Web. Internet-savvy tots can log on to www.emailsanta.com to send an e-mail message up North.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.