Harlem
    Dear Santa,

    I am the mother of three (3) beautiful childs of the 5, 13 years old and one of eight month (8)... The most important thing I want is to give my childrens happiness sadly enough I can't buy the basic thing in life. I would be so grateful if Santa Claus would send things. Luis is 13, pants size 16-18 sneakers 9 coat sweaters = 16-18. Magdalena is 5 years old Pants = 6, sneakers = 13, coat and sweathers = 6 Emiliano is (8) month old pants 18-24 m sneakers = 4-5 Coat and Sweathers = 18-24 m. Thank you, Santa Claus for making dream be come true.

Three years ago on Christmas Eve, the New York Times ran a story about adults who encourage young kids' faith in a roly-poly fellow who delivers toys through chimneys--even as grown-ups feel sheepish about promulgating the fib. A psychologist from Yale was quoted, reassuring parents that tots abandon the fantasy in a few years. Nevertheless, he warned, anyone "who still believes in Santa after that probably needs professional help."

The Yale man obviously hadn't considered Operation Santa Claus, an elaborate New York City ritual in which thousands upon thousands of locals write to the bearded legend each year and earnestly address him in the second person, though most writers are themselves old enough to have whiskers, or fertile wombs.

Consumers of populist media like the Daily News, The Post and Fox Channel 5 News are bombarded each December with stories about Operation Santa Claus, so they know it's a seasonal charity drive run from the colossal James A. Farley General Post Office, on 33rd Street and 8th Avenue by the Macy's flagship store. The same locales were featured in the film Miracle on 34th Street, and for the past several years, reporters have been urging New Yorkers to nurture Kris Kringle's spirit by visiting the main post office between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

There, in a room decorated with cardboard Donners and Blixens, you can dip your hands into cardboard boxes overflowing with handwritten missives to Santa, penned by the indigent of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Washington Heights, Harlem and the Lower East Side. You can spread the letters on school cafeteria--style tables and pore over them for hours. Soon, according to one Operation Santa promoter, a letter will make you weep by "singing" to you.

Whether unbearably tragic or poignantly winsome, the song always includes a return address, and a request for a dizzying array of items: things like sweaters, X-Boxes, Play-Station 2s, Timberland boots, Game Boy Megaman Extreme 2's, Yu-gi-oh trading cards, Bratz dolls, Phat Farm down coats, even computers and tuition for private high school. After wiping your eyes and shrugging off the big-ticket items, you take the letter to H&M or Toys R Us or Old Navy and buy what you can. Then you giftwrap your purchases and send them parcel post to the return address. Or, if you enjoy dressing like an elf and are not too fearful of places like Bed-Stuy and Fordham Road, you deliver in person on Christmas Day.

Last December, the tables were crowded for weeks with people waiting to be sung to, and the cardboard boxes spilled over with an estimated 260,000 letters--20 times as many as when the count was first publicized, nearly two decades ago. As always, the media last year implied that most letters were written by very young, low-income New York kids of all the darker-skinned ethnicities. In fact, as postal workers will reluctantly admit if you ask them point blank, many come from Latino teenagers--and even more are from Latina moms, like the one whose letter opens this article.

Writers like her are far past the age when people in cozy circumstances deem it normal to correspond with a nursery school myth. But like everyone else during the Christmas season, the poor want and want and want. In addition, they need and need the things they need all year: food, clothes, entertainment, education, a sense that someone among the unseen powers that be knows they exist--and cares. "Some years around Christmas time, I feel sad and lonely and need something to cheer me up," says Judi Cabral. A quiet, round-faced 13-year-old, she lives with a big sister, a little brother and a mother whose husband left and who tries to survive by decorating cakes in the family's down-at-the-heels apartment in Inwood. In past years after Judi has written letters to the post office, "people have brought me toys, sweaters and Barbies." She shrugs while speculating that "maybe there's a Santa somewhere."

But the city's middle and monied classes also seem needy. If the Topsy growth of Operation Santa Claus is any indication, more and more require contact these days with their socioeconomic inferiors, even if only once a year through the mail, and even if they carefully omit from the package their own name and address.

It should not surprise that these mutual needs play out so grandly in the Big Apple. Historians say the generous, gift-giving Santa Claus we know today was invented in Manhattan, expressly to help the poor and not-poor coexist with fewer tensions. Even today, that ambition may be St. Nick's greatest legacy.

_______

Sharon Glassman is one of the not-poor. Petite and chatty, with red, Amy Irvingesque hair, she pours her heart and professional energy into Operation Santa Claus each year, though she's not a postal worker. Glassman's a performance artist who appears at corporate Christmas parties, where she delivers a promotional monologue about the program that's based on her life story.

It starts with a witty description of growing up suburban and Jewish in the 1970s, in a barely observant family that not only lit the menorah in December but also exchanged Christmas presents and sang carols. As a teenager, Glassman wanted to feel Jesus in the holiday--something spiritual--which was missing even from Jewish practice in her home. She tried to "boyfriend" her way to holiness by cadging invitations to the houses and churches of her Christian beaux on December 24 and 25. She still didn't feel inspired. She joined a Unitarian church. She spent a month at an ashram. Meanwhile, as a single, childless, thirty-something woman in New York, she was turning into a shopaholic. She wasted money on two lipsticks of virtually the same shade because one might look better in sunlight. She imagined that cashmere garments were whispering to her from store windows.