Sam Harrel/AP
Santa Claus, also known as Patrick Farmer, at Santa Claus House in North Pole, Alaska, holds letters from children sent this year. The US Postal Service says it will no longer allow volunteers there to answer the letters, due to privacy concerns and budget constraints.

Um, Virginia, Santa's not getting his mail in North Pole, Alaska

Post Office

Fewer children will get their letters to Santa answered this year.

Tight budgets and tougher privacy protections have forced the US Postal Service to scale back its Operation Santa program, where volunteers help postal workers answer children's letters to St. Nick. Some residents of North Pole, Alaska, think the post office is being a Scrooge. "It's Grinchlike that the Postal Service never informed all the little elves before the fact," Mayor Doug Isaacson told the Associated Press. Volunteers there will no longer be answering thousands of children's letters, a tradition that stretches back to 1954.

But the postal service is in a bind. It has a supported the Operation Santa program since it began in New York City in 1912. What's changed is that last year, about a week before Christmas, it discovered that one of its Operation Santa volunteers in Maryland was a registered sex offender.

Postal officials discovered the problem before the child was in danger, but they shut down the program anyway for three days, instituted new privacy procedures, and then reopened it in the two cities that handle the most Santa mail: New York and Chicago.

This year, those procedures -- where volunteers never see the child's last name or address -- are in place around the country. Because the process is much more labor-intensive now, the post office is restricting Operation Santa to larger cities, including New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Sacramento, Calif., Washington, D.C., Wilmington, Del., Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Miami.

"It's a sad commentary about this day and age," says Sue Brennan, a spokeswoman for the postal service. "We're trying very hard to keep this going at a very difficult time."

Last year, when the volunteer program shut down, postal workers stepped up to answer children's letters, she adds. They normally answer most of the millions of letters that pour in each year (more than 500,000 in New York alone). This year, though, in smaller cities and hamlets around America, it might prove too much of a stretch to respond to them all.
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