"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."

Weary of toy lists, I started responding to these. I soon found out my coworkers were trying as hard to avoid this kind of letter as I was trying to avoid the "gimme" mail, and so I became the de facto "Tough Cases" Elf. I began sending out what seemed like woefully unsatisfactory (and possibly untrue) e-mail: "Dear Kim, I'm sorry to hear about your daddy. It must be sad for you not to see him as much. Just remember that he loves you, and that his love is better than anything I could bring you..." "Dear David, your sister sure is lucky to have a great brother like you. I can see why you're on my Nice list! I told all my reindeer about your letter and how much you care about her..."

And then I hit the really hard stuff: letters from adults. You know grown-ups are at the end of their rope when they're e-mailing Santa. One long, chatty, desperate letter came from a mother who gave her full name and had me convinced that she really believed in jolly old St. Nick. She didn't ask for anything. Apparently, she just wanted to talk, and knew that "Santa would understand." Another woman wrote that her car had just broken down. She had no way to get to work and no money to get the car fixed. "Please just make it run again, Santa, that's all I want for Christmas." I pondered writing a sympathy note that would reference my similar problems with a rickety old sleigh, but thought better of it (or just gave in to cowardice) and pressed the "skip this e-mail" button on the mailbox. Hopefully another brave Elf figured out a way to respond.

As Christmas approached and the heartbreaking letters poured in, my responses seemed increasingly inadequate. Illness, depression, broken relationships, lost opportunities--a hundred little human tragedies were piling up in Santa's In bin. "I saw you at the mall today and just wanted to be a little kid again. Nothing's been right for so long." I was a powerless e-bystander, and could only wish that someone a little closer to home knew what these people were going through and would help. I was all-powerful Santa, and all I could do was hope that something, somewhere, would change for these people.

The most poignant letters were also the shortest. These were always anonymous, and usually consisted of a simple line written in typo-filled haste, as if the sender couldn't bear to look at the words on the screen. One day I was sifting through the mailbox and a single word flashed on the screen: "sobriety." Wherever you are, I hope you kicked that addiction. Another letter said simply, "been trying so hard just need another chance." Wherever you are, I hope you got that chance.
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