D

ear Santa. I have been a very very bad boy this year. But I am very honest about that fact. Could you please make an exception to your naughty rule?

Judging by the scrawl, the letter is from a 5-year-old boy. It is decorated with the very bad boy's very honest drawings.

Santa, I'm going to be honest with you about my situation. I recently was released from prison and while I was incarcerated, I found out that my son was getting ready to be put up for adoption because his mother went back out on the streets to continue making the drugs in her life a priority. Since being released I have been doing everything I am supposed to do to get my son, and because of that we are now together. I love him and we are a couple now and nothing short of death will separate us. . . . This will be our first Christmas together and I am only making enough to keep a roof over our head right now.

The father asks for clothes, shoes and food for a 5-year-old.

These are just two of the letters waiting in bins in Room 117 at the main U.S. Post Office in Philadelphia this year from supplicants seeking Christmas presents for needy children. Many of the letters, like the first one quoted above, are from children. Most are from destitute parents or grandparents seeking a real-life Santa to rescue their holiday.

The program is called Operation Santa and has been run by the Post Office for more than a quarter-century. Each holiday season, thousands of needy parents and children write out their pleas for Christmas Day. Post Office employees read all the letters and separate them into bins according to how many children are involved. The bins go all the way from a single child to a family of 15.

It is a wonderful opportunity for those who prefer to exercise their charity face to face, to experience the joy of giving firsthand. Large charities serve a vital purpose: They make it easy for people to give, and they pool contributions, but they rarely afford the distinct pleasure of doing a good deed for a fellow human being. Most of the volunteer Santas learn about the program from a friend, and once they start, according to Donna Graham-DiLacqua, a spokeswoman for the Post Office, they tend to come back.

"It's addictive," she said.

Charitable citizens come in to poke through the selection and choose which ones to answer. Most years, about one-third of the letters find their way to volunteer Santas, which means there are a lot of good deeds waiting in those bins.

There is little advertising. Meg Wolf, a retired corporate executive who now runs a handmade greeting-card business, has been doing it for several seasons.

"I just go in and start reading," she said. "It is hard to choose. Some are just from children with itemized lists of the things they want. I look for those who show concern for others. Some just touch you more than others."

This year she chose two. One is from a 13-year-old boy who printed his sentences with great care:

I'm writing in because the last two years I've hadn't gotten any thing for Christmas. My Grandmom takes care of me. She has a disability between try to pay bills, and buying food things are really hard for her, something is always going to be shut off . . . she suffers with chronic back pain. I love her, she trys really hard, she goes without, but she just wants clothes for me.

The second is from a mother of two girls, who writes:

Last year our apartment was robbed. They took their Playstation and their DVD player and all of our DVDs and even one TV. It was hard for us waking up Christmas morning with nothing under the tree. I hope that you can help us this year! I just want this year to be a special Christmas.

Meg has been shopping and will arrange for a date to meet with the adults involved, the grandmother and the mother, sometime shortly before Christmas Day. She will arrive with wrapped presents and leave feeling like she has made a difference in three children's holidays.

The first time she did it, she found the family she chose living in a nice little home in the projects. All of the furniture was plastic. They had a Christmas tree. The children were "beautiful and bright," she said, and she ended up corresponding with the eldest, a teenage girl who loved to write. It was the kind of gift that truly gave back in greater measure.

Sometimes, the family she encounters leaves her feeling more sad than joyful. Last year, she delivered gifts to what she called "a very bad area," to a pregnant woman living alone with three small children.

"The kids had that kind of vacant-eyed look," she said, "the look children get when they are just parked in front of a TV all day. It made me sad, but I know that I helped make at least one Christmas a happy day for those kids."

Operation Santa is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, at the main Post Office, 2970 Market St., Room 117. They are open right up to and including Christmas Eve, which would be too late for Scrooge, but not the rest of us.

Mark Bowden is a former staff writer at The Inquirer and is now national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly. Contact him at mbowden@phillynews.com.