ANCHORAGE, Alaska – It's a name that needs no address. Everyone knows Santa Claus lives at the North Pole.
So letters sent to the roly-poly icon find their way to the small town of North Pole deep in Alaska's interior, including those simply addressed to Santa. Last year, 120,000 letters arrived from 26 countries, not counting the thousands with no return address.
Those that do have return addresses usually get a reply and a North Pole postmark in a holiday effort that has delighted children all over the world for decades.
Letters trickle in year-round in the community of 1,600, where light poles are curved and striped like candy canes and streets have names such as Santa Claus Lane and Kris Kringle Drive. Around Thanksgiving, they start pouring in by the thousands each day as Christmas approaches. Even stampless letters get through, a rare exception for the U.S. Postal Service.
"This is special because it has Santa's name on it," said Debra Cornelius, a supervisor at the main post office in nearby Fairbanks, where the letters are processed during the holiday rush.
"It's what makes Christmas magic for children," Cornelius said. "Why not make that available for them?"
Gabby Gaborik is among several dozen volunteers who believe in the Santa cause, opening crates full of letters, as many as 12,000 a day come crunch time. With 6,000 now arriving daily, volunteers are hustling to send off preprinted replies to children who sent return addresses.
"We try to keep the big guy mystical, so we sign off as Santa's elves and helpers," Gaborik said.
In his 10 years as an elf, Gaborik has seen every kind of request. There are the children who want the latest toys and gizmos they see on TV. There are the children who ask for miracles, orphans wanting their mother back for Christmas or a father back from Iraq, even though he died there. Many letter writers point out how good they've been. Some enclose a dollar bill to cover postage.
Gaborik still marvels at a missive that arrived three years with a Michigan postmark and no postage stamp. It was addressed to Santa Claus and had no return address. Inside was a thousand-dollar money order and an anonymous note that said: "If you are who you say you are, you'll put this to good use."
Volunteers bought postage stamps for the effort.
"I believe Santa Claus has qualities that represent the good in everybody, and people reach out to that," Gaborik said. "Santa Claus represents their validation as a good person, when everything today is so quick, so hard, so bang, bang, bang."
He fished a random letter out of a pile. This one ran the gamut. The writer, Ashley, wants only one thing, an iPod Nano, but then asks: "What list am I on, the naughty or nice list? If I'm on the naughty, what could I do to get of (sic)?" Then comes the hook: "And how many cookies do you think you can eat on Christmas night?"
No matter how cookies in the lure, Santa and his helpers never make any promises in writing.
Ideally, parents and other adults write their own Santa replies, put them in a stamped, self-addressed envelope and tuck them into a larger envelope addressed to the Fairbanks post office.
Either way, replies get a North Pole postal cancellation mark, complete with a half-moon drawing of Santa's face. The Fairbanks post office also stamps the postmark on thousands of Christmas cards and packages diverted through Alaska from outside the state each year.
Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks also runs a Santa letter project. Santa's Mailbag was started in 1954 by base weather forecasters.
Last year, more than 4,000 letters were received and followed up with replies from base volunteers. Many of the letters came from children of military families stationed in the lower 48 states and abroad, but civilian children also are welcome to write, said Staff Sgt. Melody Goode.
Even late letters get a reply, Goode said.
"It says something like 'Thanks for writing. Santa's been real busy,' anything the kiddies might want to hear," she said.