As the heartbreaking letters poured in, my responses seemed increasingly inadequate. I had become the de facto 'Tough Cases' elf
"Dear Santa, Mom and Dad say your elves are really busy making toys for poor kids, and maybe you won't bring much to our house. But I know you're magic, and can make a lot."
I cringed as I read the e-mail addressed to me, Santa Claus. Would anything I said make the boy feel better when he woke up to a no-frills Christmas?
Several years ago, I was working for a company that ran an "e-mail Santa" program for kids. Santa received thousands of e-mails each December, so answering each letter semi-personally--as we promised--was a company-wide effort. Employees from all departments were asked to spend a half-hour or so every day responding to mail. I volunteered.
Though in letters we spoke with the voice of Santa, within the company we were dubbed Elves. They gave us a few canned responses to draw from and warned us not to make promises parents couldn't keep. Each day, we'd check the shared e-mail box and search for unread mail. We'd pick a form letter to use, personalize the salutation, customize a few sentences, and click send. A swear word scanner and spot checks ensured that no nefarious Elf sent the little tykes anything unseemly.
What did I learn? First, the bad news: Kids today are as greedy as we fear--that is, as greedy as we once were. Nine out of 10 letters were strictly about The Goods: "Dear Santa, I want..." followed by a carefully numbered list of toys. The average list was fifteen items long, though lists of 25+ were not at all uncommon. A few enterprising kids told me exactly where I could buy the toys; some web-savvy ones used alternating font colors in their lists to hold my attention. None were shy about dictating commands to the keeper of the Naughty and Nice list. "Make sure it's the RED one I don't like green." Many were quick to point out that they'd earned the loot: "I've been very good this year--even Dad says so." A few confessed that they'd slipped, but hoped for clemency: "I did fite with my brother but he is reely annoying."
Then there were the remaining 10%. I'd expected some of the tearjerker letters you read about in "Chicken Soup" books, but wasn't prepared for the bargaining, the painful specificity of the pleas: "All I want is for daddy to live at our house again you don't have to give me presents this year or for the next THREE cristmases." "My sister is really sick. Mom says jesus will help but i think i should rite to you too."