As Christmas approaches, children long for things: cars, laptops, dolls, electric trains. The airwaves are bombarded with news of Christmas sales barometers. A stressed-out society rushes to consumption.
Since the beginning of the Advent season in late November, close to 75,000 children have written to the "Christmas Post Office" of Himmelstadt ("Heaven's City"). The tiny Bavarian village of 17,500 is one of seven towns with special post offices dedicated to receiving and answering letters with children's Christmas wishes.
"I write a letter. I sign it 'Your Christkind,' and I give the children a piece of advice. I send them a little angel, a drawing, a poem," says Rosemarie Schotte, who, for more than 20 years, has been in charge of the Christmas post office in Himmelstadt, working with 30 village volunteers to answer every single letter.
"We want to bring back the spirit of Christmas, which is a celebration of love, not necessarily big presents," says Schotte. "One has to look within one self, to remember how good you have it in life, be grateful to have a family."
The letter-writing tradition all started decades ago when a letter addressed to the Christkind ended up in Himmselstadt. Postal workers, not knowing what to do with it, just answered it. The following year, a few more children wrote. Over the years, what had been a few isolated letters turned into a flood.
In 1965, Germany's first "Christmas post office" opened in Lower Saxony's Himmelsthür, or Heaven's Door. Six other post offices in places with names associated with Christmas popped up, including Engelskirchen ("Angels' Church"), Himmelpfort ("Heaven's Gate") and Himmelpforten ("Heaven's Gates").
The letters addressed to Father Christmas, who is known in Germany as Saint Nicholas, end up in one of two places: Nikolausdorf ("Nicholas village") in Lower Saxony or St. Nikolaus in Saarland.
The tradition is an effort to counter the encroachment of consumption on the spirit of Christmas. Schotte says part of the idea is is to get families closer together, by encouraging parents to write with their children.
Christmas' wishes come in all forms and colors. Children don't just want iPods and laptops. In their letters, they share a bit of their lives, and of their yearnings to have it better.
"We get to read about just about everything," Schotte says. "The children pour their hearts out." Mostly, they talk about things like their parents fighting, illnesses, and separations. "We try to comfort them, to make them trust life again," she says.
Schotte will answer each letter with a personal note, sometimes a poem or a drawing. She tries to transmit her own childhood traditions of candles, the advent crown, eating a few Christmas cookies, the family getting closer to each other. She wants to bring togetherness back into the lives of the children's families.
''When things aren't working in small circles, how can you expect them to work out in bigger circles? In politics, in the wider world?" she says.
There is always a reason to keep on writing. Schotte received a candy bar with one letter. "Dear Christ Child," the child wrote, "I am sending you this so (you) can get energy back when you give me my presents."