Yes, Virginia, Santa does read his mail.
Every year, millions of kids around the globe communicate with Jolly Old St. Nick the old-fashioned way: Pen (or crayon) and paper. The top three countries that generate snail mail to Santa send more than 4 million letters annually: CNN estimates that 1.7 million come from France, 1.35 million are sent from Canada, and more than a million letters are written in the U.S. (The United States Postal Service doesn’t have an exact number, but says the number of letters to Santa from American kids is “easily in the millions.)
That’s a lot of correspondence. So what happens to all of it? Well, as with any other piece of mail, it depends on how the letter was addressed.
In 1912, the U.S. Postmaster General gave local postmasters the authority to allow employees and citizens to answer letters addressed to Santa. It eventually became known as Operation Santa, and today, multiple locations across the U.S. participate in the program to help deliver gifts to needy children. Those who want to play elf for the season can drop by any one of them and select a letter (or letters) to Santa to fulfill. If you don’t have a participating post office in your area, you can volunteer to start an Operation Santa in your city or donate to an existing location.
The USPS has another program called Letters to Santa, which guarantees children a response from the North Pole, but no presents. Parents mail their children’s letters to the “North Pole Postmark Postmaster,” along with Santa’s response and a self-addressed, stamped envelope. The North Pole Postmark Postmaster will return the letter to the child with a special postmark from Santa.
The U.S. isn’t alone in its Yuletide philanthropy—there are similar Santa programs around the globe. The Royal Mail makes sure kids who send letters to Mr. Claus receive a response, as does the Canada Post, which even gives the big guy the custom postal code “H0H 0H0.” Brazil has Papai Noel dos Correios, a program similar to Operation Santa. And in France, any child who writes to Le Père Noël will receive a response from a post office dedicated specifically to the cause. In fact, since 1962, receiving a response from Le Père Noël is actually guaranteedby law, bringing new meaning to that whole “naughty or nice” thing.