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Hi all. As the holidays approach, I thought I'd share an idea that I started doing a few years ago. It really changes the entire meaning of the holidays for me.

By way of background, I'm Jewish, so I don't celebrate Christmas. I really wanted to find a way to make someone else's holiday special, and so a few years ago, I started answering children's letters to Santa at the post office.

Here is how it works in Chicago (and, I assume, other big cities): immediately after Thanksgiving, the Post Office puts out a big table in its main office. On the table are boxes and boxes of letters to Santa, most written by children. Because there are hundreds of these letters, Chicago postal workers actually organize the letters in bins - e.g. "Girls," "Boys," "Three Children in the Family," etc. The table is on the second floor, open and accessible to all post office visitors.

Every year, after Thanksgiving, I go down and choose two letters to answer. As you might imagine, this is an excruciatingly difficult task. Most children ask for "fantasy" items (a horse, a new house, a family) as well as utilitarian items (shoes, a warm winter coat, a nice sweater). You can choose how much and what to give - I usually give utilitarian items plus a few fun things. You can also choose how much to spend. The only request the post office makes is that you return the letter if you don't end up answering it, so that someone else can answer it.

You have your choice regarding how to get the items to the children - you can either mail the items to the return address, call the family and arrange to meet at a mutually agreeable location, or just bring them yourself. I always bring them myself, usually on Christmas morning. I can't vouch for the safety of this option - however, I have been to some absolutely horrifying areas of this city, and I have always been treated with respect and care. I particularly like this option because by Christmas morning, many of these kids have given up on having a "real" holiday, and when they see you walk in the door with presents for them, they just light up.

I wish I could tell you all how this tradition has changed my whole understanding of Christmas. As an American Jew, I used to spend Christmas grousing about how all the restaurants were closed, or about how "out of it" and excluded I felt, or about how awful Christmas programming is. All of that has completely changed for me, and along the way, we've collected some amazing stories of human grace and endurance - like the time we brought a trunk full of groceries to a young mother who had only requested diapers for her baby, only to discover that she was also caring for three younger siblings whom she had rescued from an abusive home; and the time we drove into an area of the city that looked like a war zone to bring art supplies to a 10-year-old girl who had written to ask for a few clean sheets of white paper on which she could draw; or the time we brought a new coat to a fifteen-year-old boy who was living in a state-run foster-care facility after being thrown out by his mother. Every year, right around this time, we wonder: who will we meet this year? And what will we learn from them?

I don't know if this practice is common in suburban and rural areas, or what the capacity is of smaller post offices. However, I'm certain that large cities everywhere do something similar once Christmas approaches. I really hope that some of you - especially those of you who don't typically celebrate Christmas, for religious or other reasons - will consider giving your local post office a call this year and trying this out. It may just be the most amazing holiday experience you've ever had.

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