NORTH POLE - The North Pole postman doesn't just drop off the letters at Santa's Mailbag, he hauls them by the truckload, backing up to the front door of Santa's Pull Tabs in Beaver Brook Mall and delivering it in neatly stacked trays of 500 letters each.
"Just today we received 8,000 letters," said Gabby Gaborik, who oversees dozens of volunteers who respond to the letters sent to North Pole, a suburb of Fairbanks.
Gaborik is manager of Santa's Pull Tabs, which is operated by the Northern Lights Badger Lions Club.
Last week, volunteers had answered 20,000 letters to Santa from children across the United States and around the world. That's quadruple the number of responses sent out last year, said Gaborik.
A newspaper ad this season recruited three times the number of volunteers compared with last year and help is still needed. The final postal deadline is Dec. 17.
Many of the letters are simply addressed to "Santa, North Pole." Some arrive unstamped but decorated with colorful stickers or a child's hand-drawn stamp in the upper right-hand corner.
Despite the lack of official postage, the post office delivers them and Santa's Mailbag takes them all. Pull-tab employee Sheila Holcomb often sits at the counter during slow times and works on a tray of letters. She reads each letter and selects one of three printed response letters from Santa Claus to mail back to the sender as well as a 12-stanza poem titled "Christmas Eve at the North Pole," written by Gaborik.
Often, the letters pull on the heartstrings.
Tuesday afternoon, Holcomb pulled out a letter from a 12-year-old girl named Elizabeth who wrote that she was writing for the third year and hadn't received any presents yet. She listed the names and ages of her three younger brothers and herself, complete with their clothing and shoe sizes and requests for items like blue jeans and T-shirts.
She closed the letter asking for something for her Mom and Dad and maybe a CD player.
Gaborik said his ears are sore from calling long distance, checking out many similar letters to make this Christmas is special for some needy children around the country.
"If there is a family in dire need, we try to verify the letter is legitimate and contact service groups in the area to find out. We don't ask the service groups to do anything," Gaborik said, but often they do.
Last year, he said, one of the Mailbag's volunteers spotted a letter from a needy family and The Salvation Army in Cincinnati responded to help a woman who had been injured in a car accident, had no nearby family and no way to make Christmas for her children.
"Some of the letters are real cute, some are tear-jerkers and some are real funny," Gaborik said.
One letter that went unanswered was written on a bar coaster/postcard, requesting a few redheaded women of loose morals.
Gaborik's favorite letter this year came from an anonymous woman in Baton Rouge, La., who said she has written to Santa for the past 37 years. She asked for favors like a little tolerance with her grumpy moods and good health for her mother.
People in North Pole and the surrounding area have voluntarily answered letters to Santa Claus, complete with a North Pole, Alaska, postal cancellation since 1954, the year after the City of North Pole was incorporated, Gaborik said.
Last year, Santa's Mailbag received about 1,500 thank-you letters to Santa, mostly from school children after the holidays. This year they will be answered, Gaborik said, with a letter composed by area teachers.
Santa's Mailbag recently started Web site opens up a whole new communication network.
"It's more of an informative type of thing right now," Gaborik said. "We need help. This has been great, but it keeps on growing almost faster than we can keep up with it."
Gaborik, whose children are all grown, says he puts in long hours answering letters to keep the spirit of Christmas alive.
"It's a small amount you can do for another human being. Who knows whose life can be touched by it," he said.
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