U.S. Postal Service workers who handle letters addressed to Santa at the North Pole say more letters ask for basics — coats, socks and shoes — rather than Barbie dolls, video games and computers.
At New York City's main post office, Head Elf Pete Fontana and 22 staff elves will sort 2 million letters in Operation Santa, which connects needy children with "Secret Santas" who answer their wishes.
Fontana, a customer relations coordinator for the Postal Service, has been head elf for 15 years.
"The need is greater this year than I've ever seen it," he says. "One little girl didn't want anything for herself. She wanted a winter coat for her mother."
At more than 20 post offices, workers log every letter, black out identifying information except first name and age, and ask the public to respond. Lobby displays promote the program. People return with gifts and letters, which carriers deliver.
Cesar, 7, wrote for himself and his baby sister.
"This year my moom don't have much money to spend on Christmas gifts so I'm writing to you," Cesar told Santa. "It would make us very happy if you and your elves would bring us toys and clothes."
There are more letters from unemployed parents asking for kids' gifts they can't afford, says Darlene Reid of New York City's main post office.
One mom sent a turn-off notice from the electric company, Fontana says. A single mother of a girl, 8, and a boy, 2, wrote that she recently lost her job. "I am unable to buy my children toys and clothes," she said. "Santa may you help me with my family?"
Tough times are shrinking the number of Secret Santas, Fontana says. Meanwhile, "the percentage of people who need help has increased," says Mark Reynolds at the Postal Service's Chicago district, and about half the letters won't get answered.
Melanney, 9, asked Santa for a coat and boots. "I have been a very good girl this year," she wrote.