MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
I'm Robert Siegel.
And here's our idea of a typical holiday request from a child. Dear Santa, I've been good this year. Please bring me a bike, a puppy dog and don't forget, Kinect for the Xbox 360.
BLOCK: And let's stop there for just a moment, Robert, because before we go on with this story, if there happens to be a child nearby who can't wait for Santa to come, we're going to offer the parents our there a chance to turn down their radio for just a couple of minutes.
And now we're going to continue that letter to Santa that we just read. Maybe typical in most years, but this year postal workers charged with opening and processing those letters to Santa have noticed a significant change in tone.
SIEGEL: Joining us from New York City's main post office is head elf, Pete Fontana. He's been working with the U.S. Postal Service Operation Santa for 15 years. Welcome to the program.
Mr. PETE FONTANA (Operation Santa Claus, U.S. Postal Service): Well, thank you for having me.
SIEGEL: And what have you noticed that's different in tone this year about the letters to Santa Claus?
Mr. FONTANA: Well, normally the letters would be what you said, you know, more like greedy-type things - big televisions, Xboxs, Wiis, things of that nature, MacBooks. This year, the letters are single moms, three kids, no winter coats, no shoes, blankets, can't pay the bills, not enough food in the pantry. So the need has changed tremendously.
SIEGEL: Perhaps you can read a couple of those letters to us, Pete.
Mr. FONTANA: Hold on. Here's one from Christopher(ph). Dear Santa, My name is Christopher. I'm 11 years old and I have a sister. Her name is Bethania(ph). She is two years old. And I have a brother who is nine months. If possible, we would like some educational toys and some winter clothes. I would like something to make my mommy happy 'cause she is getting chemotherapy after breast surgery. Something like a hat or a scarf for her. Thank you very much, Christopher.
SIEGEL: Now, your program at the post office is designed to pair children in need with volunteers who might donate gifts. I would imagine that you always see letters like this every year. Is this year really different?
Mr. FONTANA: I would say that this year there just seems to be more needy and less greedy I hate to rhyme it but it just seems that thats what the trend is.
SIEGEL: Obviously the recession is being felt in those letters from the children. Are you also seeing its impact on the ability of volunteers to donate services or to donate gifts, for that matter?
Mr. FONTANA: Absolutely. The participation level is down severely from past years. It's most noticeable on the nights that were traditionally our busiest nights, which was Thursday. Last Thursday was our late night - one of our late nights - and traditionally that was our busiest night. And Saturdays are also our busiest days. And last Saturday was traditionally the busiest Saturday and the place was empty. And the same thing with Thursday night.
We hope to see a lot of people come here tonight and on this Saturday, too, which would be our last Saturday.
(Soundbite of post office)
SIEGEL: And we hear some activity around you. Where are you right now?
Mr. FONTANA: Well, right now, people are coming in. They're reading the letters and they're deciding which ones fit their budget or which ones touch their heart. And then they take the letters home and go and do whatever they can afford to do for these families, come back here to Operation Santa Claus to mail the packages.
So at this point, we have people that are actually looking at the letters, reading the letters and selecting them and also have ones that have already gone through that process and are coming back with the gifts for the families and we're assisting them with helping them to mail it.
SIEGEL: And I would imagine that in the room you have people who are alternating between laughing out loud at some of the things they're seeing and crying at some of the things they're seeing in other letters.
Mr. FONTANA: Absolutely true. But, you know, we're not getting that many laughing. You know, this year it's more people crying.
SIEGEL: It's unfortunate news, but thank you very much for talking with us about it.
Mr. FONTANA: You're welcome.
SIEGEL: Pete Fontana, who is the customer relations coordinator, and in this season, the head elf for the U.S. Postal Service in New York.