This week, I read a heart-wrenching article from the Los Angeles Times about the "Operation Santa" project, where volunteers answer kids' letters to Santa received by the post office and send the gift they request.
But this year, with a "recovery" that's leaving millions of poor and middle-income Americans behind and income inequality at its highest level in more than 80 years, the items on people's Christmas lists are often not childhood frivolities, but basic necessities. And children aren't the only ones desperate for a holiday miracle:
Bright and early on Dec. 3, the first day the program got underway, I drove to the main Los Angeles post office at Gage and Central to choose my letter. I walked into a large, decorated room where Cleo, the "elf in charge," was waiting. I expected letters full of misspelled words and little-kid grammar, asking for Legos and Barbies, skateboards and My Little Pony. I knew there'd be those who asked for phones or IPads or Xboxes, or other things out of my price range, but I figured I could find some little boy who still wanted a fire engine.
What I found were pleas from parents. A mother out of work said her family would eat, but there wouldn't be any presents. A dad wrote that his kids needed school supplies. Parents with two kids, three kids, maybe more, were hoping for help with what they couldn't provide. A dad just out of prison wanted to make Christmas special for the kids he hadn't seen for so long. A disabled grandmother asked for a church dress for her granddaughter.
I was overwhelmed. Many of the letters -- even the ones from kids -- asked for groceries and shoes, clothing and shampoo. One child wrote: "Please bring my mommy some food. She's been good this year."
But what broke my heart most of all was when I read that 90% of letters to Santa never get answered, including many written by people receiving services at homeless shelters, food banks, and after-school programs.
It got me thinking: what message does it send to the children whose letters to Santa go unanswered, whose families can't afford to put presents from Santa under the Christmas tree? That they just weren't nice enough this year to merit a visit from the man in the red suit? That Santa was too busy delivering Legos and Barbies to kids in the suburbs to bother bringing the food and clothing that their family needs?