SANTA CLAUS, Ind. -- Pat Koch stood before a neighborhood garden club, making her annual plea for volunteers to help answer the thousands of letters to Santa that pour into this little town's post office each holiday season.
But this year, Koch asked whether anyone was afraid to open letters because of the anthrax scare.
What happened next was perhaps the kind of bravery few would expect from a garden club.
''There wasn't one single person who raised their hand,'' Koch said triumphantly. ''In fact, I think more people signed up this year than ever before.''
As it is in Santa Claus, Ind., so it seems to be around the country, from New York City to the North Pole. The anthrax-by-mail attacks are not stopping volunteers and postal employees from opening and responding to kids' crayon-scrawled letters to St. Nick.
''I am not going to let terrorism stand in the way of helping these kids,'' said Phil Piccolo, a manager of consumer affairs at the Postal Service in Hartford, Conn. ''No gloves or masks here. We're just doing it.''
And they are doing it even though the threat of anthrax has hit close to home, with the death of a 94-year-old Oxford, Conn., woman. The same is true in New York City, where members of Operation Santa Claus are again making sure that tens of thousands of letter-writing kids have their faith in Father Christmas confirmed.
Diane Todd, a Postal Service spokesperson in New York, said this year's letters are being irradiated against anthrax at a mail installation in New Jersey as a precaution, but the volunteers who help delve into the letters have not been squeamish.
''You think about the kids,'' she said, ''and you don't want the kids to be victimized.''
This is a time of year when mail carriers usually grin at the sight of envelopes marked in awkward, red and green block letters, some without stamps and some with no more of an address than this: Santa Claus. Some contain cookies, dollar bills (to buy food for the reindeer) and in some cases hay, to feed directly to the reindeer.
Unfortunately, said Mark Saunders, spokesman for the Postal Service in Washington, such letters can raise suspicions. But he said there is no national Postal Service protocol for handling letters to Santa; the agency just recommends a ''common-sense approach.''
The Postal Service is encouraging children to continue writing letters to Santa but is asking that they follow a few steps to avoid raising handlers' suspicions: Youngsters should include their return address, and enclose only letter-size paper, not bulky objects.
In Fairbanks, Alaska, a mere 14-mile sleigh ride from the town of North Pole, Nancy Schmitt and her fellow postal workers are as busy as ever responding to letters from children around the world.
People take time during their lunch hour to write letters, they take them home and work on them around the kitchen table, and older school children volunteer to help out. Schmitt has single-handedly answered as many as 100 letters in one year, a small fraction of the 60,000 that deluge the Fairbanks post office.
Schmitt said she did not think twice when she sat down this year to open letters to Santa.
''How awful it would be to have your letter to Santa returned, or not answered,'' she said.
''Nobody's going to make me live in fear.''
Back in Santa Claus, Ind., 65-year-old volunteer Jack Hauser pointed out that the letters often contain an innocent wisdom that humanity might benefit from these days. Children ask for parents to get along, for people to stop fighting, for bad things to stop happening in the world.
''If more adults would just listen to them ...,'' Hauser said, his voice trailing off.
''You know, these kids expect a reply from Santa Claus,'' he said. ''Someone has to do it.''
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