Since Alaska's snowy interior is home to the man Christmas legends are made of, it's fitting that holiday cheer sparkles more brightly when it originates from the big guy's home town thousands of miles north of Seattle and hundreds of miles beyond Anchorage, Alaska's largest city.
North Pole, Alaska is a place where winter temperatures routinely linger below zero degrees, a climate Santa Claus must like since the city is also the rumored home base for the headquarters to his massive worldwide gift-giving operation.
Anyone who wants to add flare to their holiday missives, or who just wants it known they've got connections in high, cold places, can get a North Pole postmark on any standard-sized greeting card compliments of the U.S. Postal Service. Fear not, you won't be alone. Each year hundreds of thousands of people send in letters for the special post mark, according the postal service.
The only catch is that you'll end up paying twice for postage: once to send the card to the main post office in Anchorage and a second time for it to be sent to its final destination from North Pole. To get the North Pole postmark, cards must be received at the Anchorage post office by December 10.
Full directions, including the address for the Anchorage post office, can be found here.
Getting a letter to Santa himself is another matter. Through Operation Santa, the postal service does what it can to ensure Letters to Santa get through. In many cities across the nation post offices partner with community organizations in an effort to answer the letters and send gifts. In 2011, however, only 50 post offices from 17 states are participating, a fraction of the some 32,000 post offices operating in the United States.
Alaska is not among them. But volunteer elves are stepping in to fill the void.
"Some of the letters are just hilarious," said Gabby Gaborik, elf-in-chief at Santa's Mailbag, a nonprofit organization in North Pole with a single mission -- answer childrens' letters to Santa.
The all-volunteer operation began nearly 60 years ago with six air traffic controllers from Eielson Air Force Base who wrote Santa letters to the children of military members.
Over the years children have mailed letters to Santa to the post office in North Pole, or to Santa at "North Pole, Alaska" or to the address for Santa's Mailbag. Because Santa is Santa, he can be found in many places. But there is something coveted about tracking him down on his home turf.
It used to be, Gaborik said, that schoolchildren in Fairbanks would help write the return letters, taking them on as geography or English projects, with supervision from a teacher. But in 2001, after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the younger elves were cut out of the program out of fear the nation's perceived enemies might try to send anthrax or other harmful substances, Gaborik said. Gaborik got involved that year after his schoolteacher daughter told him the school could no longer take the letters.
Ten years later, Gaborik was rattling around a room filled with some 30,000 letters sent to Santa from around the world, and had just received word that the local post office had another 15,000 or so for him to go pick up. While letters come in year-round, after Thanksgiving they start showing up by the thousands. In any given year, Gaborik and his team of elves will process up to a quarter million letters, writing up to 800 return letters per day during the frenetic peak in the first half of December.
"It's tremendous," he said.
Nationwide, the post office estimates it handles millions of Santa letters each year. Those written to a specific Alaska address will be forwarded on to North Pole. Those that only say "North Pole, Alaska" will be held in the region from which they were mailed and handled by locals, but only if locals have a Santa letter program in place.
Most letters will go unanswered, both because the letter writer didn't include a good return address and because Santa simply can't keep up with the demand. Working diligently in North Pole, Mailbag's elves can answer about 13 letters an hour, and most volunteer only few hours at a time.
Letters do get through, though. And some beat the odds more than once, like three generations of woman -- a grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter -- who recently contacted Santa to let him know that they had each received letters from him over the course of their lifetimes. "Those are incredible odds over all the pieces of mail that are received," Gaborik said.
As daunting a job as it is trying to keep up, it's never boring. A few months ago a kid wrote in and asked Santa: "I know it's just barely fall, but I was wondering if you could come a little earlier this year?"
Another wrote on a large letter: "In case I am ever famous I have included my autograph." The note, along with other funny or heartfelt ones, hangs on Gaborik's wall.
In addition to diverse wish-lists, letters arrive written on myriad types of "stationery." Napkins, bar coasters, plastic water bottles -- it seems any way a person can find a way to scratch or scrawl a few words to the pot-bellied, white-bearded beneficent man in red will do.
Earlier this week Gaborik received a letter sent inside a small, 6-inch-tall bird cage. A child from out of state had taken the item to a post office and the post office accepted and delivered it, he said.
Adults also have wish-lists. One who wrote asked for a new Congress for Christmas.
One of Gaborik's favorite letters came from a 93-year-old woman. She wrote: "I have written to Santa Claus every year since I was a little girl. I am really not too sure if you exist, but just in case."
Gaborik replied: "Your belief has kept me alive for all these years. Thank you."
For the second year in a row, Santa's Mailbag has a unique, dedicated address for Santa. Write to him at:
1 Santa Claus Lane
North Pole, AK 99705-9901
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com