The letters are penned by hand, in neat and careful writing. "Dear Santa," they begin.
No colorful drawings of elves and reindeer here, no requests for Barbie dolls and Lego sets. The sober messages, stamped and addressed to the North Pole, are written by adults. The senders are asking for work, they're asking for love, they're asking for hope.
"Dear Santa," said one from a Canadian man with two young children. "I just lost my wife to cancer and we'd like you to watch over her in Heaven. Please take care of my two boys."
Canada Post handles a million letters to Santa from Canadian children each year, and some mail from grownups inevitably sneaks into the sorting stations. The post office employees who read and respond say the messages are coherent, confessional and often heartrending, a reminder that holiday joy doesn't spread evenly across the land.
"Dear Santa," began a letter from the mother of a preteen with autism. "Physically my daughter looks the same as every other child but socially she has a difficult time. For Christmas I would like you to bring my daughter tolerance and understanding. Especially I would like you to bring her a new friend to play with - one that will see the fun-loving, good-humored, kind child that she is, and who will look beyond the social gaffes and occasional inappropriate or awkward responses."
Adult letter-writers to Santa aren't confined to Canada. The U.S. post office reports this year that the economic downturn is prompting adults to ask Santa for basics like blankets, food and money to pay the bills.
In Canada, economic need is only one of a sack-full of woes to find their way onto paper. Still, why Santa? The phenomenon may be marginal - some regions get no more than a handful of such letters each year - but why would any adult turn to a figure rooted in legend, and popularized by Coca-Cola?
Polls seem to suggest Santa has more support than many politicians. Nearly a third of sampled Canadian adults told pollsters in 2007 they believed in Santa. In a 2006 survey in the U.S., more than 60 per cent of Americans with children at home said Santa was important to their holiday celebrations, with support higher among Catholics than Protestants.
"Writing to Santa is a way of reaching out to a powerful figure and making a connection," said John Service, a clinical psychologist in Ottawa and former executive director of the Canadian Psychological Association. "It's a way of being part of something that's important to so many people."
At the very least, sending a letter to Santa at Christmas - for some, the loneliest time of the year - at least ensures someone will answer. Canada Post has 11,000 current and retired employees who volunteer their time to respond to each letter. In rare instances, cases get referred to social-services agencies.
In Quebec, an estimated 50 to 100 letters from adults have arrived for Santa since November. A number of the senders are in their 70s and 80s.
"What strikes us most is the loneliness," said Canada Post's Christiane Ouimet, who co-ordinates the Quebec Santa program and answers a number of letters herself. "People write because they're alone and they don't know where to turn. I think they want to relive what they experienced as children."
Some don't bother giving a return address. "It's as if they just need to talk to someone," she said. "So they write to Santa Claus. For them I think it's like going back to the magic of the holidays, because for them it's been lost."
Solitude doesn't only afflict the elderly, however. "I'm 37 years old and I've been deeply unhappy for too long," one woman wrote this year, in a letter excerpted last week in Montreal's La Presse. "All I really want for Christmas is to find my soulmate."
This week, a letter arrived from a soldier-in-training who will be a father for the first time - yes, there are Santa believers on the battlefield. "Dear Santa, I haven't written to you for a long time. I hope you haven't forgotten me," he wrote. "This year for Christmas I ask you nothing more than to give health, happiness and love to my young family."
Filtered through the missives is a hint that, at a time of shifting religious faith, something of the Christmas spirit exerts a powerful pull on at least some Canadians. Like the middle-aged mother who wrote to Santa to say she was broke, they're looking for a bit of hope at Christmas.
"Dear Santa, I bet it is a rarity for you to receive a letter from a 50-year-old woman," she wrote. "This is the first year in my life when I have been unable to give Christmas presents to my family. I am on unemployment this year and my son has not been able to find work. As a mother, it hurts to see my son fighting the frustration of not having work. That would be the gift I would give him if I could this year: A job so he would feel better about himself."
She said oil in the furnace and saving up for winter tires would have to take priority over gifts. "It has made me rethink Christmas and what it really means to give from the heart."
Santa, she added, "I am writing to you in the hopes of finding the little girl I lost. You see, no matter how old I get, I know she still exists just as you do. You represent the kindness of a soul who carries himself from home to home in the blink of one night to make wishes come true … most of all you represent the hope that anything is possible. How can I not believe in such magic?"Report Typo/Error