ANCHORAGE, Alaska – North Pole elves have good reason to celebrate again, thanks to a decision by the U.S. Postal Service to resume a Santa Claus letter program that's thrilled children from around the world for decades.
"It's great!" Gabby Gaborik, chief elf among several dozen volunteers, said of the agency's Friday announcement that it's reversing a recent decision to drop a program begun in 1954 in the small Alaska town of North Pole. The program was suspended over privacy concerns.
Gaborik's group, Santa's Mailbag, responds to thousands of letters addressed to "Santa Claus, North Pole" each year. The letters will now be answered by the North Pole elves under tightened privacy rules implemented nationwide by the Postal Service in response to security concerns that arose in a similar program in Maryland last year.
The group also has been assigned a specific address that will allow its volunteers to run their own alternative program, bypassing the stringent new rules and perhaps lessening the Santa letter load for the Postal Service. The restrictions don't affect privately run letter efforts. Children can write to Santa through that program at: 1 Santa Claus Lane, North Pole, AK 99705.
At least 100 volunteers are expected to help in both letter efforts, Gaborik said.
Members of Alaska's congressional delegation hailed the decision to resume the Postal Service program, which brings as many as 150,000 letters to Santa from children worldwide. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Democratic Sen. Mark Begich and Republican Rep. Don Young sent letters this week to Postmaster General John Potter expressing their concerns.
"This decision today by the Postal Service brings the Christmas spirit back to Alaska," Murkowski said.
"This is a perfect Christmas present for Alaskans and children across the country who love to write to and get a letter back from Santa," Begich said.
People in North Pole, a town of about 2,100, were outraged by the idea of losing a beloved holiday tradition. The town prides itself on its Christmas identity, and signs of it abound, from striped light posts curved like candy canes to streets with names like Kris Kringle Drive. The biggest attractions are the post office — where tourists can get their postcards hand stamped with the North Pole postmark — and Santa Claus House, a store featuring everything Christmas.
The Postal Service implemented the tighter restrictions after a postal worker in Maryland recognized a volunteer with its Operation Santa program as a registered sex offender. The worker intervened before the individual could answer a child's letter, but the agency viewed the scare as a reason to tighten security.
The Postal Service had already restricted its policies in such programs in 2006, including requiring volunteers to show identification. But the Maryland episode prompted more changes, such as barring volunteers from having access to children's last names and addresses. The agency instead redacts that information from each letter and replaces the addresses with codes that match computerized addresses known only to the post office.
Postal Service officials, who consider the North Pole effort part of the agency's giant Operation Santa program, originally said the Alaska district had too few resources to deal with the time-consuming new rules and was therefore opting out.
"We're just going to have to knuckle down," said agency spokesman Ernie Swanson. "We never wanted to spoil people's Christmas. It was just a decision we had to make based on privacy concerns, and it is labor-intensive. But it's still nice that we're able to resume this and still make people's holiday."