When you think about the U.S. Postal Service, the first thing that jumps to mind might not be joy and delight.

That all changes once you hear about the USPS's Operation Santa.

Operation Santa is a program that has evolved to help children all over the country get the gifts they really want ... even if their parents might not be able to afford them.

Basically the Postal Service allows you to "adopt" a child's Christmas wishlist, making their dreams come true (as long as you get it to a participating Post Office by December 21st). 

According to the USPS, the mission of Operation Santa is "to provide a channel where people can give back and help children and families -- enabling them to have a magical holiday when they otherwise might not -- one letter to Santa at a time."

Operation Santa is at once a heartwarming tradition and a brilliant branding move on the part of the Postal Service, which must now compete with behemoths like FedEx, DHL, and UPS. It connects people, human to human, and in the process reminds you of how wholesome it is to support public programs like the USPS.

Here's how the whole thing actually works:

If you want to sponsor a child, you simply look through the letters (which are exactly as adorable as you imagine). Once you select the one or more you want to adopt, you go out and buy the gift, wrap it, package it in accordance with simple shipping guidelines, and bring it to a participating Post Office.

Then you cry out of the sheer gratitude high you get from doing something totally kind, and totally anonymous.

It's worth noting that you can participate in this tradition as a team or organization, not just as an individual. Talk about a way to bring the office together--imagine allowing each of your team members to select the letter they want to adopt, and explaining why they picked that particularly letter over hot cocoa with the rest of the team.

Incredibly, the USPS has been running this program for over a hundred years. Yes, you read that right. In 1912, Frank Hitchcock, the Postmaster General at the time, authorized Postmasters to allow their local postal employees and citizens to respond to the letters. The program eventually received the moniker Operation Santa.

As if things couldn't get cuter, in many Post Offices around the U.S., postal employees still actually take the time to hand-write responses--signed by Santa.

The USPS does not discriminate in terms of who can write a letter to Santa; any child or family can participate. All personal information within the letters is redacted for safety. The only "rule" is that the child or family member participating must include a valid return address and mail their letter to:

Santa Claus
123 Elf Road
North Pole

Any letter sent in that fashion will be listed as part of Operation Santa.

Here are all the participating cities:

  • Austin, TX
  • Baltimore, MD
  • Boston, MA
  • Chicago, IL
  • Cleveland, OH
  • Denver, CO
  • Grand Rapids, MI
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • New York, NY
  • Orlando, FL
  • Philadelphia, PA
  • Phoenix, AZ
  • Sacramento, CA
  • San Juan, PR
  • Washington, DC

"Each year, hundreds of thousands of letters sent to Santa from children and families arrive at Post Offices around the country," says the USPS. "Most letters ask for toys and games. Some ask for basic necessities. Some ask for help for themselves and their loved ones. USPS Operation Santa makes it possible for individuals and organizations to adopt these letters and send responses and thoughtful gifts in Santa's place."

In other words, if you want to, this holiday season you can actually be one of Santa's elves.