For over half a century, a secret room in a Belfast sorting office has housed a team of 'honorary elves' tasked with replying to the children who write Father Christmas to ask for everything from love to handlebar moustaches. Katy Birchall explains how it works.
Something magical is happening at the Royal Mail in Belfast. Strolling past rows of high-tech machinery, which sift and categorise mountains of letters at mind-blowing speed, you might be fooled into thinking this post centre is like any other.
However, in the words of Roald Dahl, ‘the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it’. And those who care to look in on ‘Operation Santa’ – the Royal Mail’s team responsible for answering letters to Father Christmas – will witness magic all around.
What ‘Operation Santa’ does
From the millions of parcels and cards passing through here this Christmas, letters bearing a certain address are quietly plucked from the mass. They are then delivered to a 20-strong team that will reply to each and every one.
For more than 50 years, Royal Mail has had the honour of managing Father Christmas’s mailbag, taking receipt of letters sent from all over the UK to the North Pole and making sure that not one is left unanswered.
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‘I remember the first time Santa replied to a letter I’d sent him as a child,’ enthuses one of his chief Royal Mail helpers – or honorary elves – Lucy Granet.
‘Knowing that he had received my letter and had taken the time to write back to me was just magical. Now, working on his behalf is a wonderful part of my job.’
All the more extraordinary by the fact that letters in general are nothing like a part of our lives as they once were.
‘Like Father Christmas himself, letter writing is a tradition that will always have a special place in our society,’ says Helen Dafter of the Postal Museum.
‘The digital age might have alleviated the need to put pen to paper quite so often, but there will always be a place for it. It’s wonderful that it’s become as much a part of British Christmas as a turkey and a tree.’
How the Royal Mail started collecting Father Christmas’s post
The tradition of writing to Father Christmas can be traced back to the late 19th century, but it really came into its own in the 1900s. Although some favoured the letter-up-the-chimney approach, the Post Office began to be inundated with letters bearing a variety of addresses.
‘Snowland and Toyland both featured on the envelopes regularly,’ says Mrs Dafter, ‘but postal regulations meant that letters addressed to Father Christmas at real places, such as Greenland, had to be forwarded to that country.’
The birth of ‘Operation Santa’
Sending letters overseas clearly wouldn’t do and, in January 1963, Operation Santa was signed off by Postmaster General Reginald Bevins, who was consequently dubbed Santa Bevins by the press.
The first reply from Father Christmas was sent in December 1963, with his Reindeerland postmark and a promise to do his best to fulfil the request – more than 8,000 cards were sent out that first year.
Now, the number of handwritten letters received is in the hundreds of thousands, which is rather extraordinary for a generation growing up in the era of instant messaging.
The early birds, and those who leave it until the last minute
Children’s letters start to flood in shortly after the last firework has exploded on Bonfire Night and continue to arrive up until Christmas week, although a few trickle into the Belfast mail centre as early as September, marking the official start of Operation Santa.
The things that children ask for
‘Father Christmas is sent a real mixture of requests,’ smiles Miss Granet, gesturing to the stack of colourful letters waiting on her desk.
‘Some children ask for one big present and there are those who just cut pages and pages out of toy catalogues and stick them in. We get lots of lovely, cheerful illustrations and snippets of news – the effort put into the letters is amazing.’
The boy who asked for love for Christmas – and not even for himself
There are some surprisingly thoughtful wishes, too. ‘A little boy wrote last year to ask if his favourite teacher, who was single, could meet someone special for Christmas,’ says Miss Granet.
‘It was very sweet. The reply said Father Christmas would do his best to help.’
The letters that can break your heart
As well as the requests for toys there are also some missives that are difficult to read and impossible to forget. Last year, one little girl requested no gifts, asking only that her brother, who was suffering from cancer, might get better soon; another, from 3-year-old Amelia, asked for a ‘cuddle from her daddy in heaven’ .
‘It can be a bit of an emotional rollercoaster and puts things in perspective at this chaotic time of year,’ says Miss Granet.
All I want for Christmas is… a handlebar moustache?
Another Royal Mail elf, Adrian Leonard, who fell into this special role last year – ‘I volunteered to help Santa read his post and, the next thing I know, I’m sitting in a wee room, wearing a wee green hat and talking about something called Paw Patrol’ – and says that for the most part the letters bring plenty of cheer at a very busy time of year for the company.
‘There was one boy who was desperate for a moustache. Every second line, he mentioned it,’ he recalls.
‘We got in touch with his parents and, apparently, his father has an impressive handlebar moustache that he’s obsessed with. The letter was brilliant.’
Father Christmas’s celebrity correspondents
It’s not just children asking Father Christmas to go beyond his usual remit of toys. Last December, to mark National Letter Writing Day, a host of celebrities wrote to him in the hope that he might wade in on political issues. Radiohead singer Thom Yorke recommended that politicians influenced by oil-company executives be swiftly moved to Saint Nick’s naughty list and Annie Lennox asked that the world’s refugees might be granted assistance.
Benedict Cumberbatch apologised on behalf of corporations that had ‘bastardised [Father Christmas] to represent materialism gone mad’ and pleaded that he might distract children ‘from the realities of a world gone mad’. The actor did, however, sign off on a lighter note: ‘P.S. Please could I have that lightsaber now?’
The great peril of the job for those who would help Santa answer his post
There’s no denying that Operation Santa is a heartwarming enterprise and one that Royal Mail’s elves are devoted to – despite one or two snags attached to their unusual job description. ‘Children love glitter. Every time I open a letter, I’m covered in the stuff and it’s impossible to get off,’ Mr Leonard sighs.
‘When I meet people in the evenings, they take one look at me and say “You’ve been doing that elf thing, again, haven’t you?”.’
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Father Christmas can be reached at Santa’s Grotto, Reindeerland XM4 5HQ – but the last posting date for 2017 has been and gone. Check the Royal Mail website for next year’s posting dates to make sure you’re in time to get your guaranteed reply.