Anthrax scare might crimp popular North Pole holiday letter effort

PHOTO/James MacPherson/AJOC
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - Anthrax fears may claim an unexpected casualty this year - mail from Santa Claus.

Security measures imposed by the Postal Service in response to anthrax-contaminated mail could mean the end of a popular Christmas letter effort in Alaska’s Interior that has thrilled children all over the world for nearly five decades.

As many as 60,000 letters a year pass through the tiny post office in North Pole, a town of 1,570 southeast of Fairbanks. Some are addressed simply as Santa, North Pole. Each letter with a return address usually gets a personal reply and a North Pole postal cancellation mark.

This year, however, piles of mail might lie unopened, as postal workers grapple with how to handle such a large volume while dealing with the ongoing anthrax danger.

The bacteria has contaminated several postal facilities on the mainland, killed four people and sickened more than a dozen others.

``I’m hoping our project remains consistent with other years,’’ said Raymond Clark, postmaster of the Fairbanks Post Office, where most of the letters are processed. ``So many children write letters to Santa, writing about their dreams. Getting a reply puts a twinkle in their eye. But it’s too early to tell yet what we’ll do.’’

The scare hasn’t affected the influx of Santa letters. They’re already trickling in at a rate of 100 a week, according to Clark. Now he is waiting for postal officials in Washington, D.C., to decide what to do with them. Usually they are answered by volunteers from North Pole and other Alaska cities, as well as folks from other states. But the letters aren’t being handed out to volunteers now. Clark said he isn’t even sure whether they will be opened at all.

Part of the problem postal workers face in handling children’s mail is that:
``These items are often addressed by kids,’’ Clark said. ``And a lot of them don’t have great writing.’’

Young penmanship that might have been ignored in the past now fits the profile postal workers are warned to look for to identify a letter as suspicious.

But postal officials in Alaska remain optimistic they’ll get the go-ahead from headquarters.

``We urge children to continue to write to Santa _ he’s immune to everything,’’ said Nancy Cain Schmitt, the agency’s Alaska spokeswoman. ``If Santa doesn’t answer, parents can just say he must have been really busy this year.’’

Clark said another alternative is for parents to write their own Santa replies, put them in a sealed, self-addressed envelope and enclose them in another envelope addressed to North Pole Christmas Cancelation, Postmaster, 5400 Mail Trail, Fairbanks, AK 99709-9999. Postal workers need only open the outside envelope, add the North Pole cancellation and send Santa’s ``reply’’ to children.

The Fairbanks post office already uses that method to cancel many parent-written letters, as well as about 150,000 Christmas cards and packages that pour in from outside the state each year. Clark said that service will continue this holiday season.

Despite the anthrax threat, Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks is offering another alternative through a much smaller letter project. Santa’s Mailbag was started in 1954 by base weather forecasters who didn’t like seeing letters to Santa unanswered and thrown out by busy postal workers before the North Pole volunteer effort evolved.

And they still don’t want to see that, said Tech. Sgt. Darrell Robertson, coordinator of the project, which handled nearly 4,500 ``letters from Santa’’ last year.

``I would hate to break the tradition,’’ he said. ``Through thick and thin, through war after war, it has gone on. We have not missed a beat.’’

It’s not as enchanting as the North Pole effort: Replies are sent on a variety of form letters customized by weather office workers and their families.

Also, scribbling Santa on an envelope won’t reach the base. To get a letter from this program, children must address their letters to Santa’s Mailbag, 354 OSS/OSW, 1215 Flight Line Ave., Ste. 100B, Eielson Air Force Base, AK 99702-1520.

The air base replies, however, do feature those coveted North Pole cancellations.

11/01/2001 - 8:00pm